Colm Tóibín:
    The Blackwater Lightship
Nolaudah Equiano:
    Narrative of his Life
V.S. Naipaul:
    Finding the Centre
J.M. Coetzee:
W. Somerset Maugham:
    The Moon and Sixpence
David Guterson:
    Our Lady of the Forest
Charlotte Bronte:
    Jane Eyre
Kazuo Ishiguro:
    Never Let Me Go
Stephan Greenblatt:
    Will in the World
William Golding:
    Rites of Passage
Michael Crichton:
    State of Fear
Mark Haddon:
    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Jane Austen:
    Pride and Predjuce
Richard Powers:
    The Time of our Singing
Yann Martel:
    Life of Pi
John Keay:
    The Spice Route
Azar Nafisi:
    Reading Lolita in Tehran
Arthur Koestler:
    The Thirteenth Tribe
Haruki Murakami:
    Sputnik Sweetheart
    Norwegian Wood
    South of the Border, West of the Sun
Timothy Hemion:
    Inspector Morimoto and the Two Umbrellas
    Inspector Morimoto and the Famous Potter
    Inspector Morimoto and the Suchi Chef
    Inspector Morimoto and the Diamond Pendants
Kazuo Ishiguro:
    The Remains of the Day
Glenn E. Markoe:
    The Phoenicians
Graham Greene:
    Travels with my Aunt
Pankaj Mishra:
    The Romantics
Barbara Tuchman:
    The Zimmermann Telegram
Katia Mann:
    Meine ungeschriebenen Memoiren
Ha Jin:
Salman Rushdie:
Gilad Atzmon:
    A Guide to the Perplexed
Jacques Casanova de Seingalt:
    The Memoirs
Henry James:
    The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James

    The good thing about this book is that it was written so long ago that it is no longer subject to copyright, and thus it can be simply downloaded from Project Gutenberg. Many years ago I read some other book by Henry James. Was it Washington Square? As I recall, the book was a nice "society" novel about rich Americans going to Europe to find civilized husbands, or wives, or something or other, in the 1890s, or so. From what I can remember, the book was OK. So I was expecting something similar here.
    This book starts off in a more tantalizing way, saying that this is going to be a dreadful horror story. The rich members of High Society (or at least Middle Society), sitting around the fireplace in a comfortable country home, distant from London, gasp at the idea, but the suspense is increased when the narrator announces that in order to tell the story with its full horror, he will have to return to London and collect something from his residence there so that he can begin the narration the next day. The ladies faint, then they quietly leave, returning to their own luxurious residences in the City, avoiding the Horror.
    So what can we expect here? What horrible things are there to narrate in a horror story? For example a modern-day horror story is the Americans in Iraq who torture their prisoners. But the young ladies of the American army do not faint with the horror of it all. On the contrary, in the photos they have made so that all the world can see their horrible deeds, their faces become radiant, beautiful. Yet when they are being marched into their courtrooms to face court martial - when they are not being horrible - their faces are revealed to the world as dull and ugly! A hundred years ago, in the time of Henry James, the Heart of Darkness was far away, in the middle of Africa. But even there, the horror was being caused by degenerate Europeans. Today, through television, these things have become routine. Such is the world these days. And the rich, hysterical ladies in modern times no longer find it necessary to faint.
    With these thoughts in the background, I began reading the main part of the book. It turns out that the story is a rather hum-drum ghost story. The heroine is a refined, but poor, governess. Her predecessor and the earlier butler are ghosts, or something. Perhaps they had an "affair", despite the fact that the butler was "below the station" of the former governess! How horrible. Perhaps they thus died as punishment, and must inhabit the earth as ghosts until this dreadful sin has been atoned, or whatever. I was expecting the book to end with Henry James explaining what all this nonsense was about. But no! At first I thought that the people at Project Gutenberg may have forgotten to put in the last few chapters, but this was also not the case. Other people who had actually bought paperback editions of the book reported that this was, in fact, the end. So I could hardly imagine what to make of it. Particularly since it is supposed to be a "classic".
    But now I have learned that it may not be as trivial as I had thought. One can think of it as being like a Hitchcock movie. Fair enough. A description of madness, hysteria. And there is more to ghosts in literature than one thinks. They can be the dead seeking atonement or justice, or they can be instruments of the devil, or guidance from heaven, all depending on which religion you would like to believe in. Also they can be real, or just a joke, depending on the country in which you live.

The memoirs of Jacques Casanova de Seingalt

    This is again something which can be freely downloaded as an ebook. The Library of the University of Adelaide has a nice collection which is very well formatted in html, making it convenient to read. So when having a look at the index of their books, I noticed this Casanova thing, and so gave it a click. It took a surprisingly long time to make its way along the telephone lines to here, despite all of this modern digital technology. After unpacking the file, I found out why. The whole thing consists of 143 chapters, plus extensive introductions prefaces, appendices - and so forth and so on. 7.1 Megabytes of this stuff! But quite frankly, I downloaded this some time ago, and in the meantime I have only managed to get through the first 14 chapters, plus a couple of the introductions and prefaces, and so now I've decided to just erase it from my hard-disc and get on with other things, writing these few comments here to bring this episode to a simple conclusion. Of course, this laptop computer which I am using has so much capacity for absorbing such writings that, relatively speaking, 7.1 megabytes is hardly distinguishable from zero. In fact, thinking about it, I realize that even if 10,000 Casanovas spent all their energies madly writing away during the later, more geriatric phases of their lives, still they would be unable to fill up the hard-disc of this computer.
    As everyone knows, Casanova lived during the 18th century - the "age of enlightenment". The author of one of the introductions became quite carried away, saying that this is a unique document of the state of the world at that time. Yes. I am also fascinated by the baroque period (although this is more the rococo phase of time, isn't it?). It seems that this character Casanova traveled all about Europe, transporting himself from one position to the next, seeing many different places and people, settling nowhere. At the end, he was a lonely old man, earning his keep by looking after the private library of some count, or duke, or whatever. (It's been such a long time since I read that introduction that I have forgotten most of the details.) To stave off the loneliness and emptiness of his life, he went to the library every day and spent the day writing these "memoirs". I did have a peek at the end of chapter 143, and it all ends abruptly, without coming to a proper end, so I suppose that is the point at which he died. His patron, the count, or whatever, did not throw away the mountains of paper which his employee had left. So it all survived for the curious eyes of later generations.
    In fact, they found it to be so interesting that they had it published. In order to avoid offending the tender sensibilities of the romantic ladies of the 19th century, only the "inoffensive" parts were published. But even these must have involved 10 or 15 volumes, and years of typesetting work. But then, one publisher, or another, took issue with the other, and so he decided to abandon all caution and he published the whole lot, without exception, even the "offensive" parts. What expense! What effort. Then, of course, after completing this monumental task, it was banned, and the publisher was threatened with jail by the "moral police" of the "age of romance". In any case, this complete version of Casanova's writings is what you can download from the University of Adelaide.
    But are the "offensive passages" so offensive? Hardly. Any modern writer with ambitions of winning the prestigious Booker prize would certainly have to spice up the obligatory erotic passages way beyond Casanova's level to even begin to hope for success. (Of course, there may be more to it in the chapters 15 through to 143, which I didn't read.) No. For me, the whole business became increasingly tedious as I realized that at least 50% of it is nothing more than the fantasies of a lonely old man. And the encounters he describes with women are 99% or more pure fantasy. What a sad life he had. Once we realize the true nature of these writings, then we see how this man has opened up his mind to the cold examination of a curious posterity. He believed that every female he encountered was instantly and totally "in love" with him. All of his elaborate descriptions are merely descriptions of his ignorance of love. All that he understood of love was love of himself. How he must have suffered in life, hoping to find somebody to accept him, but being rejected by one woman after the other. So in the end he filled the vacuum of his life with all of this nonsense which he wrote down. When not imagining that every female in sight was totally in love with him, he fills his writings with gloating over the various ways he was able to cheat the male characters which appear in his fantasies. I can well imagine that in real life he did spend most of his energies trying to cheat other people, but lacking all elegance in this art as well, he spent his life running away from his enemies. How depressing.
    Rather than reading Casanova's nonsense, I would recommend the novels of Henry Fielding, which are also there to be downloaded at the University of Adelaide. Tom Jones, Amelia, Joseph Andrews. All of those books are true to life and treat these themes in a wonderful way.

A Guide to the Perplexed, By Gilad Atzmon

    The author was born and grew up in Israel. He is a professional jazz musician and thus he is an open-minded and free thinker. This book is totally "improper". As far as I can gather, it was written in Hebrew, and only later translated into English. The plot, according to the blurb on the back cover is: "The year is 2052, and the state of Israel has been defunct for forty years, the majority of its citizens having become refugees overseas. In order to provide Israel with a decent burial, an Institute for the Documentation of Zion is established, and among its archives is the autobiography of one Gunther Wünkler." The book is then a free-wheeling, indecent account of Gunther Wünkler's life. This is definitely a taboo book for anyone who respects modern-day taboos! It has been compared with Phillip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint". It is certainly much more indecent; but it is lightly written. I enjoyed it far more than the few Phillip Roth books I have read, which were too full of their own importance for my taste.

Fury, By Salman Rushdie

    This is the first book by Rushdie that I have read. Quite frankly, I was disappointed. He certainly tries to impress us with his learning, quoting many leaned things which few people know about. But I am skeptical of this approach. Do all of these references represent just the tip of the iceberg of his great knowledge - which may very well be the case; after all he is supposed to be England's very great - our greatest - novelist, according to the Guardian. Or does he simply own the Oxford dictionary of quotations, and one or more encyclopedias, as many other people do? But who would be unwilling to excuse him for this? He who has lived under threat of a murder contract, issued years ago by fanatical islamic types. So the Furies in this book - not only the Furies of ancient Greece and the Furies of Islam - seem to describe in some indirect way his situation in life.
    The action takes place in New York. The protagonist is Malik Solanka, who was a Cambridge professor whose field of responsibility was obviously something which Rushdie himself feels would be a good place to be in a more normal, less "furious" life. But Solanka's hobby is making dolls. The dolls become television stars in the field of philosophy (which seems rather far-fetched) and this transformation from private to public life transports Solanka from academic poverty to sudden riches. He feels he is going insane. Suddenly he finds himself standing next to the bed of his sleeping wife with a knife in his hand. What is happening? To escape from this insanity and from himself, he flees from England to an expensive apartment in New York City. There he meets various with-it people. (One of his female partners tells him that she is not really considered to be all that with-it, since she doesn't yet have a "unit", which is to say the possession of 100 million American dollars - if I recall that detail of the book correctly.) He reads in the newspapers of a chain of murders amongst these with-it people and hopes that he is not the murderer (perhaps, in his madness, he murders people while sleepwalking, or something). Another with-it female partner, or perhaps the one above, is, like Rushdie, of Indian descent, and she comes from "Lilliput-Blefuscu", where later some action also takes place. This Lilliput-Blefuscu business is repeated over and over in the book. On the other hand, real people like Alan Greenspan, and so on, come and go through the pages. Is Rushdie afraid that the Fijians might issue their own fatwa if he names them in this book? If I was him, I would be careful too!
    Perhaps Rushdie, in his passages through New York, does actually live with such shallow, with-it people as described in this book. If so, then I feel sorry for him. But I find it hard to believe that this is the real world (but of course the real-life Rushdie moves in completely different circles than we normal people), and if it is a fantasy, then it is too silly to be taken seriously.

Waiting, by Ha Jin

    The strangest thing about the paperback edition of this book is the "Acclaim for Ha Jin's 'Waiting'", which is part of the blurb inside the front cover, quoting some of the wonderful things that the Chicago Sun-Times, or USA Today, or the New York Times Magazine had to say about it. Most of these magazines and newspapers said reasonable things. Yet the review of Time said " Waiting turns, page by careful page, into a deliciously comic novel." So how can anybody who has actually read the book call it comic? Perhaps the reviewer of Time Magazine became confused, reading some other book with a similar title by mistake? Did the reviewer read anything, or did he or she simply produce a meaningless collection of words which nobody except the promotion people at Vintage books gave any thought to? Another possible solution to this problem is that the reviewer my have been - and still is - an adherent of the more militant branch of the women's lib movement of the 1960s and 70s. I can well believe that this book would be a red flag to such a person who - feeling that heavy-handed criticism of inappropriate lifestyles for women does not go down so well these days - decided instead on sarcasm. But it is better to read the book with an open mind, realizing that Ha Jin, who left China to become a professor of English in the USA, was criticising the inappropriate lifestyles of both women and men during the time of the Cultural Revolution in China.
    I thought this was one of the best books we have read for a long time. Here we see real people, not the seething, blue-clad, termite-like masses of mindless people, as they were described in Time Magazine 30 or 40 years ago. The hero (or at least the main male character) Lin, is caught up in this whole business. Rather than paying thousands of euros per month, as old people do today, to be put away in some old peoples home, Lin's parents ordered him to marry Shuyu, who they had decided was the appropriate candidate to nurse them for free in their old ages. After all, surely the main purpose of having male offspring was as a means of obtaining free nursing care. This was according to the bad old cultural habits, which the revolution was supposed to do away with. And poor Lin wasn't even living anywhere near the country village of his childhood. He was a medical officer in an army hospital far away. When he did meet Shuyu on his short annual holidays, he found that it would be impossible to bring her to live with him in the army hospital, since she had horribly deformed feet as a result of them being painfully bound when she was a child. What an embarrassment! And anyway, he didn't love her, which in the modern world is considered a good thing in marriage, even in China. But still, he did father a daughter with her. The worst thing was that Shuyu, to the horror of all women's lib types, remained loyal and totally dutiful to him and his parents, despite everything.
    In his real life in the hospital, Lin was grabbed by the lonely nurse Manna. She also clung to him, despite his fear of further involvement. Perhaps fear was justified. While the cultural revolution in China took place at the same time as the sexual revolution, and the triumph of Flower Power in the West, the Chinese version was much more puritanical. The "moral police" carted the offenders away to display them throughout the city in open trucks with degrading signs attached to their necks, the final revolting cultural act being to publically execute the morally weak back-sliders. Who could blame any of the characters in this book for becoming mixed-up? In the end Lin marries Manna, having finally persuaded the moral police to allow him to divorce Shuyu. But he realizes that while other people could love him for various unexplained reasons, he himself was incapable of loving in return. So family life with Manna was a catastrophe, and in the end he longs to return to Shuyu, who, loyal as ever, resolves to wait onwards towards eternity for him. How depressing.
    But it's all very believable, and this book transports us into a strange world which really did, and I suppose still does, exist.

Meine ungeschriebenen Memoiren, by Katia Mann

    In contrast to her husband Thomas, and her offspring, Katia Mann refused to do any public writing. Thus the title of this autobiography, which is the result of interviews, parts of which were also shown on German television. I'm not really into German literature. I did read "Death in Venice", in English, long ago. Perhaps something else which I don't remember. But this book is not important literature. It is simply interesting, well worth reading. Also the photos included in the middle of the book are fascinating.
    What a different world she was born into! Her father, Professor Pringsheim, was a professor of mathematics at the University of Munich, back then at the turn of the 19th to the 20th centuries. But in the cultured life of Bavaria back then, everybody enjoyed speaking to each other using Bavarian accents and expressions. Even the Bavarian royals. A good custom. How refreshing it would be if, in a similar way, the present-day British royals would speak to the world in broad cockney slang!
    She has vivid descriptions of life in exile in California during the 1940s, then the exile from the USA during the McCarthy era. A very interesting and enjoyable book.

The Zimmermann Telegram, by Barbara Tuchman

    According to the Oxford Illustrated Encyclopedia, the causes of WWI were (i) fear of German colonial ambitions and (ii) problems in the Balkans. As far as the Balkans are concerned, in recent years, during a period of Russian weakness, we have seen how changeable the attitude of the "Allies" has been (coupled with large inputs of depleted uranium dust). The question of whether or not this recent intervention in the Balkans, or that of WWI, was necessary, and whether the result justified all the suffering, remains open. But the major theme of WWI - namely the grabbing of as much colonial territory as possible - worked out well for the Allies. The few German colonies in Southwest Africa, Tanganyika, and what have you, were taken over by England. So what was the result of all this colonialism? In hindsight, we see that it was also evil. And the disruption of Europe caused by WWI led to the further evils of WWII and the cold war.
    What was the role of the USA in all of this? If, as is commonly done, the character of a country is identified with the character of its leader, then the USA was playing an honorable role in the personification of Woodrow Wilson. In contrast to some of the pathetic performances of more recent reincarnations of "the USA", he was able to think for himself. While the bankers and armaments manufacturers around him were clamoring for war, he set all his energies on a search for peace. A just armistice. A "peace without victory". The English were disgusted with this idea. The Germans were looking for a negotiated peace, but only on unreasonably favorable terms.
    That is not to say that the USA were the "good guys" and the Europeans were the "bad guys". As neutrals, the USA was doing very well indeed, making lots of money out of the affair, the basis for the "Old American Century" - the 20th, which has just ended - and sowing the seeds of moral corruption which we are now seeing in this new century. They simply said that the high seas are free, and international law allowed them to sell things to the English at great profit. This was rather unfair, considering that Germany was being  blockaded the whole time. The German "wonder weapon" was the U-boat, which was supposed to equalize things, providing an effective blockade of England. In those days, the majority of citizens of the USA agreed that that would only be fair, and the war profiteers in New York should be kept in their place by President Wilson.
    But things were much more complicated than this, and that is the interesting thing about this book. I had never realized that, for the USA, it was really all about fighting Mexico and Japan. In reality of course, the USA was also a "colonial empire". It had grabbed Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and so forth, from Mexico in a brutal war of conquest. (Not to mention the spoils of the Spanish-American War.) And in fact, during the early years of the first world war, practically the entire US army under General Pershing was doing nothing other than pursuing a never-ending wild goose chase through the mountains of northern Mexico, galloping after the Mexican General Pancho Villa, attempting, in the immortal words of the current inhabitant of the White House to "smoke 'em out" and "git'em, dead or alive". And in an extremely interesting reflection of modern "terrorist" thought, Mexico was - as it still is - one of the biggest producers of mineral oil in the world, providing the British Navy with almost all the oil needed to keep its ships steaming along and "ruling the waves".
    The Zimmermann telegram was a blunder by the Germans in WWI, leading to the entry of the USA into the war, and to all the tragic consequences we have seen in the 20th century. Zimmermann, the German foreign minister, suggested in a telegram to his ambassador in Mexico that, after the start of a U-boat blockade of England, if the USA declared war on Germany, then Mexico should declare war on the USA to regain its lost territories. Furthermore, Japan should be encouraged to join them in this. (After all, the original inhabitants of the Americas came from eastern Asia, and thus were racially on a par with the Japanese.) The telegram was intercepted by the English, who used it to maximum advantage, creating a sudden wave of hysteria in the USA, a feeling of indignation in Woodrow Wilson, and thus a declaration of war, after which, the Mexicans got cold feet.

The Romantics, by Pankaj Mishra

    This is a wonderful book. What more can one say? Saying lots of other things detracts from that basic fact. But despite this, I'll just go on and write a lot of further stuff here....
    So this is another book about India. It's natural to compare it with the other India books we have read: "A Fine Balance" and "The God of Small Things". I think that those were books written by Indians to be read by Indians. The fact that we "Westerners" also read such things is somewhat beside the point. But when we do read them, we find them to be shocking. What brutality lurks in that country! Then there is another kind of India book. A genre which thankfully seems to have died out. That is books written by English people, telling about the great times they had in that country when it "belonged" to England. People from class-conscious England - usually of a class below the top classes - used to travel to India and, as conquerers of that most sickeningly class-ridden society, they sunned themselves as lords over the tops of the Indian classes. Well, all of that finished with Indian independence in 1947.
    Still another standard genre - one which fills the bookshelves of the esoteric sections of modern-day bookshops - is books written by the "Seekers" (to use the expression of Miss West, one of the characters in the present book). I'm sure we all know a number of these seekers. These are the European and American young people, and as time goes on the not so young people, who have become Buddhists, and seek for even further things in India. (For some reason Buddhism is more popular amongst these European and American seekers, in comparison with Hinduism, which is the main religion of India. Buddhism was the main religion of China hundreds of years ago, but as with the Catholic religion in Europe, it gradually became merely a system for accumulating extraordinary amounts of money. Thus, in the East, Buddhism is no longer so popular.)
    I do know someone who spends half the year in India each year, and who has a music master there who teaches him the Indian flute. That is a bamboo instrument with very large finger holes. The principle of Indian music is totally different from that of European classical music. One plays against a plucked instrument which produces a constant, twangy, droning noise, very rich in overtones. The flutist then slides his fingers over the holes, coming into and feeling the perfect blending with one overtone and another. It is a very fine, technical music. The English, who refused to open themselves to the ideas of the "lower races" of humanity, thought that they could help to "improve" this primitive music by introducing the technical marvel of the harmonium. That also produces a twangy, droning noise. But the fact that it is tuned to the equal temperament system means that the overtones become chaotically mixed up. Thus, Indian musicians who attempted to fulfill the desires of their masters simply lost touch with their traditions and produced a degenerate and meaningless music.
    When discussing these things, this acquaintance of mine told me that his musical endeavors with the bamboo flute had an advantage over my endeavors with the wooden baroque flute in that his master exists in the living tradition of his music. In contrast to this, the tradition of western classical music has changed drastically over time so that the original tradition is lost. The fact that some people here in Europe have decided to break with this "living tradition" and see what things might sound like using instruments similar to those used in the old days is a shallow backwater for the dilettante. Fair enough. This may all be very true. I can only say that a music such as Bach's mass in b-minor, which in the modern, living tradition of a huge choir, and a slow-moving, heavy orchestra is absolutely dull and boring, becomes magical when lightly played with simple instruments and beautiful young singers.
    The genre of the present book is something quite different. Namely, an Indian person meeting, and becoming overwhelmed by all these European and American "seekers" in his country. So in contrast to such a shocking book as "The God of Small Things", this is a book about these seekers which we - as Europeans or Americans - can understand. In order to increase the exotic attraction for us, and in contrast to an author such as Arundhati Roy, the author of the present book fills it with lots of words describing Indian things which we don't understand. The narrator is Samar, who comes from a high-caste family which has become poor. His hope for the future is to pass the Civil Service Exams, so that he can exist as a poorly paid and overworked civil servant, but at least above the horror which we saw in "A Fine Balance". His chances are poor. Only lower caste people are being accepted by the civil service. He hopes to learn more, and perhaps become accepted, by reading ancient European literature. He moves to the city of Benares, where Indians go to let their corpses be burnt, so that the ashes will be scattered in the river there. This is a great attraction for the seekers. Thus, when looking for cheap accommodation, Samar ends up in a house where a sitar teacher lives on the ground floor, spending his days in a haze of opium smoke, and European and American guitar players, who come to him to learn the sitar and Buddhism, then go up to the roof in the evening to lose themselves in opium smoke also.
    In the next room is Miss West, an aging Englishwoman who has a large circle of seeker friends. She organizes a party, inviting Samar along as well. He meets Catherine, a beautiful young French woman, whose boy-friend is Anand, another poor Indian who also plays the sitar. They plan to travel to Paris, where Anand will earn his living teaching the sitar to the French in France. Also he will make lots of money with great concerts of sitar music in Paris. Both know that this is hopeless. And so the story goes. Samar is hopelessly in love with Catherine. But in the end he escapes to the Himalayas where he lives peacefully as a simple school teacher. I think this is great. I also love the mountains.
    You have to read it to appreciate this story. It is particularly to be recommended for potential seekers in order to get a clearer picture of what they might be getting themselves into. I personally make no secret of the fact that I have absolutely no desire to have anything to do with India. My experience has been limited to passing over it at 35,000 feet in a jumbo, in the middle of the night, on the passage from Europe to Australia and back again. While the other travelers are dozing, or looking at the in-flight movie, I go to the back and try and peer out of the porthole into the night sky over India. It's a strange, dream-like view. Flying over most countries in the night, one sees the lines of the roads marked out by the street lights. Then there are the patterns of the larger towns and cities clearly glowing with the artificial light. But over India, there is just a random, diffuse light. It is like looking at the milky-way through a telescope. A galaxy of lights. There are the occasional, random bright stars, and a background of gradually dimmer stars, fading to the limit of vision. In earlier times, Qantas occasionally stopped at Bombay to fill up. During the night, it was like a stop-over at any other international airport. But what a shock it was one time to touch down during daylight hours! We travelers, who wanted nothing to do with this business, were confronted with the dreadful sight of thousands of squatters, living in their squalor directly beside and around the runway, having their ears blasted to smithereens by the great roar of the engines each time a jumbo landed or took off.

Travels with my Aunt, by Graham Greene

    The reason I read this book was that it was one of this years books of the Folio Society, and I thought it might be good. So I put a cross next to it on the Order Form to be one of my four books for this year. Not so long ago I had read "Our Man in Havana". Years ago (on a trip to Mallorca) I read "Monsignor Quixote". That was really a very good read. Then even further back I read "The Quiet American". I did see the film of "The Third Man" on television, a couple of times, but I don't remember reading the book. Also "The Comedians". I can't remember if I ever read that book. Finally there was a book which I read a very long time ago, I think it was by Graham Greene, and it was a story of a car chase involving some thieves in a car, and some police in another car, or cars, driving around the chessboard-like squares of the huge American mid-western wheat fields. That certainly wasn't the greatest story I have ever read in my life.
    According to the Introduction to the present book, written by John Mortimer, Greene wrote this book (first published in 1969) at a difficult point in his life. He was involved in some monetary fraud (together with Charlie Chaplin), and had thus fled England for tax reasons, or whatever. Apparently he was actually an MI6 agent, and his cover had been blown following Kim Philby's defection to Russia. It's strange to imagine a real-world spy writing these kinds of books. Was "Our Man in Havana" the story of his life? Or did he really enter the horrible world of assassination and torture which we now know was the reality of the spy world of those days, and if so, did he write these "Greeneland" books to divert his mind from this horror?
    The basic plot of the book is that the hero, Henry Pulling, lived his life in the local bank of an English suburban town, eventually becoming the bank manager. He never went anywhere else. He never married, or had anything to do with women. One of the best customers of the bank invited him to dinner occasionally, and he became acquainted with the man's spinster daughter. At the time of the story, he has retired, although he is only 57 or so, the customer has died, Mr. Pulling has supervised the selling off of his house, and the spinster has moved to live with distant relatives in South Africa. (This is the brutal Apartheid South Africa of the 1960s.) She writes hopeless letters, telling him how she wishes she were back in the pleasant world of suburban England with him. He tries to answer these letters politely. At his mother's funeral, he unexpectedly meets his Aunt Augusta, who in reality is his mother. She is 75 years old, but she has the urge to travel as much as possible, to run away from death, or perhaps to meet death unexpectedly on these travels. At least she thinks that time passes more slowly when one travels. And thus, taking Mr. Pulling along on a trip to Istanbul on the Orient Express (which in the 1960s was a bad way to travel), she convinces him that he has not been living life to the full. On this trip, she smuggles gold bars, thus violating the currency restrictions of those days. Perhaps this is what Graham Greene himself was doing as well. She tells him various stories and tall tales of her life, much of it involving interesting adventures during World War II. The man who was the great love of her life, Mr. Visconti, was a war criminal, or maybe he was simply living "underground", hiding from the police, because he managed to steal a fake drawing, the original of which was an obscure drawing by Leonardo da Vinci which had been destroyed by a WWII bomb. Or whatever.... In the end, Mr. Pulling goes to join his mother and Mr. Visconti in Paraguay, where they live by smuggling coffee from Panama to Argentina in an old DC3 airplane. Of course in those days, according to the stories one reads, the real CIA was using these "Dakotas" to bring cocaine and heroin from South America into the USA. The book ends with a nice party in the mansion they have bought in Asuncion, where they are having a wonderful time in the Nazi-like conditions which were imposed by General Stroessner. And the poor spinster remains unhappily with her relatives in the Nazi-like South Africa.
    All of this is written as humor. I admit the book did pick up somewhat towards the end, and I did read it to the end. But apart from the plot, I also found the dialog to be often rather weak and false. For example Aunt Augusta had an African boyfriend, and Greene's attempts at giving him monkey-like lines to say are not only in bad taste, but they are not at all like what a West-Indian in England, or someone from French Africa, would say. They are simply technically wrong. A random sample goes like this: "Ar like it. Ar say it over and over. Ar know it now good lak a hymn." On the other hand, Mr. Pulling's pathetic attempt to speak French at his father's grave in Boulogne, using his snooty bank managers voice, is not paraphrased in an ape-like, or monkey-like way, as it undoubtedly would have sounded. Also Mr. Pulling meets a teenage American girl on the train to Istanbul. Much of her dialog does sound American. But her problem is that she thinks she is pregnant and hopes that her overdue period will finally come. When talking to him about this, she constantly refers to "The Curse". Somehow Graham Greene seems to have just lost touch with the world when he was writing this book.
    I didn't think it was very funny. But at least he did write "Monsignor Quixote" later, in 1982, which really was a good book.

Inspector Morimoto and the Two Umbrellas, by Timothy Hemion

    The thing that happened was the following. A few weeks ago, in the middle of the semester break, we went to the island of Amrum to run along the beach and enjoy the huge views and the clear sea air. While doing that, and thinking about the coming semester, I resolved to follow my son's advice and create an internet home page for myself in the Faculty, writing up my lecture notes along with the exercises and putting them into that home page. It seems that lots of people do that these days. It's modern. But then the idea gradually grew in my mind that it would also be nice to make a "private" home page here at "Arcor" (Arcor are the people providing us with the telephone and internet connections at home). Since hardly anybody would know about this private home page, I would just write all of this flippant nonsense in it which you see above. And nobody could accuse me of misusing the official computers at the University, which, after all, are for "work". So writing these things here gives me a good feeling. I can just say what I think after finishing a book. After all, our reading club meets so seldom, and anyway, when we do meet, we only discuss the particular book which we have all read then. So I worked out how it is possible to make a home page with Arcor, settled on this design, then happily put all this stuff into it.
    After a while a sudden egotistical thought struck me, and I wondered if, when typing my name into google, this private home page of mine might come up in the list. It didn't (thankfully), although my new home page in the Faculty did. As a matter of fact I had also tried putting "hemion" into google some time ago, long before I had thought of this whole home page business. Now, in contrast to such names as "smith" or "jones" or even "schumacher", "hemion" is not an extremely common name. But despite this there were a number of different hemions in google. The big name is Dwight Hemion. I even remember seeing his name on the television screen in the days long ago, in the 1960s, when we were still living in the USA and I was addicted to ABC's Wide World of Sport. He was the Director (or the Producer or something) of the show. He is all over that section of google. A cousin of my father's, another Hemion who used to be a ship's chandler and who lived on a houseboat near Seattle (but he spent most of his retirement cruising as a passenger on cargo ships around the Pacific), wrote me a couple of letters. He said that he had been in contact with Dwight Hemion, or perhaps with Dwight Hemion's mother, but they had been unable to establish a definite connection.
    In any case, according to the official story, our branch of the Hemion family were Huguenots. They escaped from France at the end of the 17th century, traveling first to Holland, then across the ocean to New York, or whatever. My impression is that "Hemion" is a pleasant, elegant French name. But in fact, next to all the achievements of Dwight Hemion, I did notice that google also listed another Hemion who was on a "most wanted" list of the police back there in New Jersey. So our family - or at least some family with the same name as ours - does in fact contain a black sheep, or at least someone who is not leading a simple, straightforward life, according to the usual conception which society associates with such a description.
    Be that as it may, this new google search brought up many references to the present book, as well as further books by Timothy Hemion. Pursuing these links, I found out that he was born in England, studied mathematics at Cambridge, then became a mathematician. He has even written a mathematics textbook! This seemed to me to be almost incredible, given the general lack of Hemions in the world. As a professional mathematician he spent time visiting the University of Okayama in Japan. So these books which one finds using google were inspired by his experiences in Japan. Looking at, I see that 39 people reviewed the book, and of those 39 people, all 39 gave the book five stars! So obviously I had to get it too, and read it!
    I went in to Luce (the bookstore in the University here), and the woman who always takes my orders for these books listened to what it would be this time. (It is so much better to get these books through real people, rather than that anonymous Amazon. Also Luce is much faster as well.) She rather blushed as I explained that it was a book by Hemion. After all, she also knows how obscure my name is. If it wasn't for me there would be no Hemions at all in the whole of the German-speaking world! In fact as far as I can gather, there are hardly any of them left in France as well. Looking in the computer, she had to tell me that "Inspector Morimoto and the Two Umbrellas" was not in their big central warehouse in Hanover, and thus it would take more than a day to get it. Once or twice I did look in impatiently, but I had to wait over a week.
    So I did enjoy reading it. But I won't write anything more here. If I write overly positively then I will be accused of unfairly favoring a fellow Hemion. And I certainly would not want to write anything against him! If anybody ever does read this and becomes curious, then they should just look at the reviews which real people have written for Amazon. The book does deserve such credit.

The Phoenicians, by Glenn E. Markoe

    The world was a different place 2500 or 3000 years ago. This is the time of Homer's Odyssey and of King Solomon. The Greeks are emerging from their "dark ages" and the Middle East is recovering from the ravages of the "Sea Peoples", whoever they were. The Phonecians established themselves on the coast of the Levant, on promontories or islands right off the coast. Places like Tyre, Byblos, Sidon or Arwad. They shipped wood down to Egypt. The Cedars of Lebanon. After all, obviously Egypt, existing there in the middle of the desert, has no wood of its own. I had always thought that cedar is a soft wood, like fir or pine. But apparently it is hard and fragrant; it's good for building things with. Also the Phonecians had worked out how to make purple dye by using the glands of the "murex" shellfish. It seems that you must sacrifice hundreds, if not thousands of the poor murex to get an ounce or so of this dye! So there is a huge mound of these shells behind the beach in the little bay on the south side of Sidon. Lots of these glands are put into a bucket with salt water and left for days or weeks, becoming a stinking mess. Only then do the enzymes develop which give the purple color. According to the classical authors, the smell was dreadful. The Phonecian cities tried to place their dye industry downwind of the main habitation.
    But it is interesting to imagine what these cities were like. They were very small. For example Tyre was a little island perched on a narrow rocky reef about 500 meters long, and perhaps 500 meters from the mainland. (It was expanded somewhat by the efforts of King Hiram I, who had various artificial embankments constructed.) Yet this - together with Sidon - was the main metropolis of the Phonecians! Tyre was surrounded by a smooth, finely fitted stone wall, fifteen meters high. The buildings in the city were then perhaps 5 or 6 stories high, with very narrow streets and passages. The harbor was formed by two great artificial breakwaters, consisting of massive, precisely fitted blocks of stone.
    So the Phoenicians were a people of the water, shipping things from one place to another, trading in all sorts of materials. They dominated the trade in metals, establishing shipping routes out to the main centers of mining activities. Even before the turn of the millennium 3000 years ago, they had a well established island fortress city at Cadiz, out in the Atlantic, on the southern Spanish coast. It seems that the valley of the Guadalquivir was a very rich source of metals. In fact, going beyond this, it is thought that the word "Britain" is derived from the Phoenician word "barat-anac", which meant "the country of tin". The Phoenicians were a relatively peaceful people who were more interested in trade than conquest. They lived in their small coastal fortresses, trading with the native populations. This is seen in Sicily, which was an important way-station for trans-mediterranean shipping. It was only when the more aggressive Greeks also took to colonization that the aboriginal inhabitants were reduced to subjugation on the eastern, Greek half of the island. (Yet according to Homer, Ulysses took a ride on a Phoenician transport ship which happened to be passing through Greek waters at the time, during one phase of his Odyssey.)
    But almost none of the writings of the Phoenicians have survived. This, despite the fact that their system of writing is the basis for our modern alphabet. One reason is that they wrote on papyrus, or wood, or whatever. Things which have moulded away with time. Thus the main sources are a few occasional Egyptian writings, the Bible, and then various writings of the classical Greek and Roman authors, who seem often to have been rather prejudiced. Then of course, the civilizations which we consider to be the precursors of our modern world - Persia, Greece, then Rome - totally wiped out the Phoenicians. Back then, Persia was the real super-power, extending all the way from India over to, and including, Egypt. So the Phoenicians played their role as the Persian navy. (Where they suffered a great defeat at Salamis in 480 BC.) But towards the end of this period, as Persia was weakening, Sidon thought it might make a move in the direction of freedom. It was brutally crushed in 345 BC by Artaxerxes III, even though it had surrendered without a fight. More than 40,000 people were murdered. Then just a few years later, in 333 BC, Alexander the Great was beginning his conquest of Asia. As he was swarming down the Middle East, the remaining survivors of Sidon offered no resistance. But the city of Tyre was not prepared to surrender. They felt safe in their island fortress. Yet Alexander went to the trouble of constructing a causeway out to the island, so that even today, Tyre is no longer an island, but rather a peninsula connected to the mainland by a sandy neck of land. Then he murdered or enslaved all the inhabitants of the city. Finally, 200 years later, Carthage was similarly destroyed by the Romans.
    Therefore the historian must rely to a great extent on archeology. One detail concerning their religion, which the classical authors who were the enemies of the Phoenicians enjoyed dwelling on, was the "tophet", which is translated as the "sacred precinct". Small children and babies were cremated and buried in ceramic vessels. Was this the ritual sacrifice of living children? Perhaps. Or perhaps it was simply the funeral ritual of still-born babies, or victims of childhood disease. The fact that it was not just confined to the Phoenicians is seen in the Bible, where Jeremiah (7:30-2) writes, "For the children of Judah have done evil in my sight, saith the Lord: they have set their abominations in the house which is called by my name, to pollute it. And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart. Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that it shall no more be called Tophet, nor the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of slaughter: for they shall bury in Tophet, till there be no place."

The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro

    So this is a book about butlers. I agree with the comments of the various reviewers printed on the back cover. It is indeed a "dream of a book". "Remarkable, strange, moving". It certainly did deserve the Booker Prize of 1989. But before getting carried away with all of this, we should really put this whole butler business into perspective. I found this interesting website, devoted to explaining the wonderful opportunities to be had if you want to be a butler in this modern day and age. So you see, you can get a "fabjob" as a butler, typically earning $50,000-$100,000, or more per year. Great, isn't it? Certainly better than what mathematics brings in! But what I don't understand is, how does a "fab" butler have the free time to enjoy all his fabulous earnings? Or is all of this something which is of a completely different quality than the butlering which Mr. Stevens, the hero of our book, indulged in back in the inter-war years of England?
    For me, one problem with this book was that I saw the movie, staring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, on television a couple of years ago. Perhaps I even saw it twice, or at least during the second viewing, watched it for some length of time. So when reading the book, I had Anthony Hopkins' character in my minds eye. He projects a feeling of suppressed aggression, of bitterness at what is not. Emma Thompson was a very lovable Miss Kenton, but Anthony Hopkins was hardly a fab butler! If I was Reggie Cardinal, then I would certainly not want Anthony Hopkins to be telling me about the birds and the bees! But after getting into the book, with an effort of willpower, I was able to suppress this vision of Anthony Hopkins, and instead form a more sensible picture of Mr. Stevens.
    A defining moment in Mr. Stevens butlering career is the big "conference" at Darlington Hall in 1922 (or is it 23?). Lord Darlington correctly realizes that if the Versailles Peace Settlement (forcing Germany to pay crippling reparation payments, flowing through England and France directly into the bank vaults of New York) is not changed, Europe will be overcome with disaster. Mr. Stevens must create a pleasant atmosphere to ensure the success of the conference. The challenge is increased through the unfortunate circumstance that Mr. Stevens' father, who has been kindly hired by Lord Darlington to keep him going in his old age, chooses this very night to expire in a massive stroke! However, Mr. Stevens is able to make the best of things, since Dr. Meredith, who had been called to look after the father, had thus conveniently arrived at Darlington Hall, and so to the great satisfaction of M. Dupont, the seemingly touchy French delegate, there was a medical doctor present to look at the blister on his foot. This triumph of butlering skill allowed M. Dupont to declare his true assessment of the situation. Namely, contrary to all the bad things said about France in relation to the Versailles business, the real culprit was that horrible, sleazy American, Mr. Lewis, who was the cause of all evil. Fair enough. But as we have seen, despite Mr. Stevens best efforts, Europe did, in fact, become overcome with disaster in the aftermath of this episode.
    One thing that didn't come across in the movie was that the action in the book actually takes place much later, in 1956. Europe is totally drained, Lord Darlington has himself expired, and so various rich Americans are coming to buy up what remains. Darlington Hall has been bought by the jovial Mr. Farrady in order to show his friends what great things he can buy with all his money. An American couple visits, but they mock his purchase, telling him that not only the house is "mock" English, but the butler, Mr. Stevens, is too! However our hero decides that he might be able to save the situation by teaching himself how to banter with Mr. Farrady, and by increasing the number of servants which, in line with the idea of increased productivity in the modern age, has dropped to the ominously low level of only four. So, acting on a slightly emotional letter which Miss Kenton had sent him (she had left Darlington Hall 20 years before to marry another butler, even though she secretly loved Mr. Stevens) he motored off across England to see if he could get Miss Kenton to come back. But she doesn't.
    The recurring theme in the book was the quality of "dignity". I can't say that I know lots about this theme, but it seems to me that in a basic sense, being a butler, and being dignified, are totally contradictory states of existence. Now it may well be that butlers put on a big show of being dignified in order to mask their true identities. Thinking about this, I have recently read that there are as many as 300 billionaires in the United States at the present time. This surprises me, since I had thought that Bill Gates, with his Windows (which I, of course, along with all of the mathematicians here, do not use), towers in the lonely isolation of his immense riches with his 50 billion American dollars. But this is not the case! Warren Buffet is only a couple of billion shy of Bill Gates. Then there are hundreds of others with all their billions, going right down the scale to a mere one billion. Thus we see that there are hundreds of billionaires with money to splash about on all these butlers, and what have you. Who knows what sorts of degenerate lifestyles these riches lead to?
    So is Bill Gates' butler extremely dignified? I can hardly imagine this. Just looking at Bill Gates' figure, I imagine that his butler spends half his time driving over to the nearest McDonalds to get him a cheeseburger. Perhaps Warren Buffet's butler does look dignified. But then, as with Mr. Stevens, he must wait cautiously outside the smoking room, while Warren Buffet speaks of the great affairs of the world with his newest protege, the designated next President of the USA, Arnold Schwarzenegger. As for the butler at the White House, whoever he may be, I can scarcely imagine what he is up to. The internet is full of various ideas concerning the present conditions in that household. Whatever that state of affairs may be, most people seem to agree that the butler during both Kennedy's and Clinton's tenures had less dignified tasks to attend to. So Mr. Stevens definition of the term "dignified", namely the ability to keep one's clothes on in public, may not have been far from the mark. Finally we must not forget Diana's butler, Paul Burrell. I must admit that I haven't bothered to read his book. But it seems to me that Mr. Stevens would not elevate him to being in the category of one of the "great" butlers, since he did not deny that he had served Diana.

Inspector Morimoto and the Famous Potter; and the Sushi Chef, by Timothy Hemion

    These are the third and fourth adventures of Inspector Morimoto and his assistant, the young, mathematically trained police woman, Atsuko Suzuki, written by my compatriot in name, the mathematician Timothy Hemion. I had wanted to wait until I had read all four of the books before writing something more here, but unfortunately, although Luce had the second book, "Inspector Morimoto and the Diamond Pendants", in their computer catalog, and so I ordered it weeks ago, it still hasn't arrived! There seems to have been some confusion, and they have made some inquiries with their suppliers. But at least in this way, I still have one more adventure to look forward to reading. It seems that Timothy Hemion will not keep up the pace of writing which he has achieved in these first four volumes, and so we will have to wait another year before the fifth book comes out. But as I say, since Luce had no prospect of quickly delivering "The Famous Potter" and "The Sushi Chef", I took the step of ordering them through This is the first time I have ever ordered anything via the internet. Who knows what worms, or viruses, or trojan horses may be awaiting my vital information somewhere down the telephone lines? But then I realized that the information I would be transmitting was not very secret at all. Nothing to do with credit cards. A simple bank transfer which could be recalled at any time it might be thought to be in error. Also I had thought that perhaps nobody would be at home when the postman came with the package. But really, it's seldom that nobody is at home, and anyway, the postman is a very sensible person. So I went ahead and clicked away at Amazon, and in less than two weeks the postman rang our bell and delivered the books!
    These books are called "detective stories", but they are not just little logical puzzles in the style of Agatha Christie, where some number of possible murderers are all together in a house, or a train, or a ship, and the reader is then presented with a set of facts, and the game is to "win" by deducing "who done it" before the solution is revealed on the last page of the novel. Once or twice I've tried reading such stories, but I've given up with boredom before finishing. These books of Timothy Hemion are quite different. If anything, they remind me of the Swedish "Commissar Beck" programs which were shown on television. I think there were only 5 or 6 of them, and I think they were based on some Swedish detective story novels, but I haven't read them. As with Morimoto and Suzuki, we have these Swedish policemen being confronted with various cases from one episode to the next, and as in real life, the characters continue, and they often think about their previous adventures. The difference is that Commissar Beck, and particularly his sometimes violent assistant, Gunwald Larson, are often confronted with scenes of shocking brutality which provoke Gunwald to answer in kind. Gunwald is no mathematician! although he often gets the right idea. However his weakness is that he must pursue that idea, often against all logic, bullying the various characters which come in his way, until the crime is finally solved. Surely this is often the way things really are in life. It's not a silly little logical puzzle. The force of events gradually reveal more and more about a crime, and in the end - hopefully - the truth becomes apparent to all. The difference is that, unlike Gunwald Larson, neither Morimoto nor Suzuki have as yet become physically violent. There is Sergeant Yamada, the judo champion of the Okayama Police Department. But until now he has not needed to demonstrate his skills in a professional capacity.
    So as we gradually learn more and more about the lives of Morimoto and Suzuki, we form a better picture of the whole situation there, around the "Inland Sea" of Japan. I can well believe that it was a great shock, especially for Morimoto, to hear about the tragic train crash in Osaka which we saw recently in the news. I have the feeling that, as the series progresses, Timothy Hemion is enjoying the development of his characters. "The Famous Potter" was a good read, and we learn much about the traditional pottery industry of Japan. Then "The Sushi Chef" is concerned with a phenomenon which is perhaps becoming more and more of a danger to everyone, not just in Japan.
    How are we to deal with official "experts" who put on a show of knowing everything, yet common sense might show that they are wrong? In the case at hand, a professor in the field of probability theory gives evidence which appears to be irrefutable. But on closer examination, it is pure nonsense. Surely there are many people in the real world today who have been put away in prison on the basis of such false testimony. I think this is a real problem, and I am sure that it is always a good thing if experts with inflated opinions of themselves become deflated. Although there are many bad examples of distorting the truth with statistics, it seems to me that an even greater danger is the increased use of DNA tests. These tests are certainly often helpful, but surely we should always accept the results of the tests with skepticism. The world is filled with countless, invisibly small molecules. Undoubtedly most crime scenes are a total organic mess. A swab is taken somewhere or other, containing trillions, or even more, molecules. Then, using the technique of PCR, an organic "chain reaction" is set in motion in the laboratory, making huge numbers of copies of a single molecule which, by chance, may have been found on the swab (assuming it wasn't contaminated by a microscopic waft of air, or whatever, in the meantime). On the basis of such evidence, which few people understand, and which the professors, putting themselves up as great experts, can't be bothered to explain in great detail to a courtroom (in any case, the court would not be prepared to bother itself with all the myriad possibilities of uncertainty which might come into play here), people are condemned to prison. It may be true that the tests are often valid. But imagine the situation of a person who has been thrown into prison on the basis of false DNA analysis. For such a person there is absolutely no hope in the world! A belief in "science", however misguided it may be in some cases, has taken the place of the same kind of belief in religion which existed in medieval times.

Sputnik Sweetheart, by Haruki Murakami

    This link, which I have given to Haruki Murakami's "Official Website", is really well worth visiting. Very cool. And here is another link, to a site which contains many reviews of his various books. I wanted to know what the reviewers had said, since for me, this book was somewhat of an enigma.
    The story is very simple, and it is simply told. There are basically three characters: the narrator, whose name I don't think was revealed in the book, then Sumire, a young woman who would like to be a novelist, and finally Miu, who is a woman in her late 30s. The narrator is a young man, maybe 24 or 25, and he has drifted into being a school teacher for younger children - say around 10 years old. He is in love with Sumire, in the sense that life without her is meaningless. She needs him too. He is the only person she can really talk to, and in her disoriented life, she rings him on the telephone at 3 in the morning, then flows on about things for hours. This must have left him rather bleary-eyed the next day at school. Then Miu appears, who is the source of this enigma. Sumire falls in love with Miu, and secretly wishes to love her physically as well. The narrator finds this to be unfortunate, since he would like to have Sumire too, but he accepts the way she is.
    Miu is Korean, although she has grown up as a Japanese. She has studied music and gone to Paris to further these studies, but when there, something strange happened. In some way, the feeling, physical part of her, split away from her in a surreal scene, and the part which she was left with became half lifeless. Her hair became suddenly white. Thus, as a person with no passion, she is no longer able to play music herself. She can only listen to concerts, or recordings. Her family had a business importing wine into Japan which she inherited on the sudden death of her father, so she frequently travels to Europe to keep in touch with the wine makers. She is an expert at judging music, wine, food, cloths, and everything else you can buy. She is the elegant, perfect consumer of modern life, with no deeper feelings.
    Miu employs Sumire as her personal assistant, and they go off together to Europe. They end up on a small Greek island, spending hours each day lying on a beach in the Mediterranean sun with no clothes on. This overwhelms Sumire, who in the middle of the night seems to have a kind of fit and then does come nearer to Miu, but then the next day Sumire apparently also loses herself in a surreal world of dreams. Perhaps she is no longer a part of this world. She disappears, as if in a cloud of smoke. Miu rings the narrator in the middle of the night in Tokyo, asking him to come. His sudden flight into this Greek world of dreams leaves him still whole, but disoriented. Sumire is never found again. It is a small island. The Greek police tell them that if she had drowned, then the fishermen would have found her body. Where could she be? Perhaps she is lost in the depths of a cave which the police mention, but which is not further discussed in the book.
    So, in a sense this becomes a kind of ghost story. But the ghosts are not people who have died, rather they are people who have lost their feelings. Indeed, I think it is true that there are many such ghosts in the world today. The glossy magazines one sees, full of the most elegant, wonderful things to have, to buy, seem to belong to a ghost-like world of refined, but meaningless feelings. This is the new, almost religious feeling people seem to have developed when thinking about "the economy", "consumption", and so forth.
    The title, "Sputnik Sweetheart", came from the first encounter between Sumire and Miu. Sumire wanted to talk about her admiration of the Beatnik writer Jack Kerouac, but "Beatnik" - a highly-charged, emotional movement back in the 1950s - came out in Miu's mind as Sputnik, a Russian word meaning "traveling companion". The first Sputnik was a lifeless, bleeping metallic sphere which orbited the Earth. The second, which was launched on the 3rd of November, 1957, carried the female dog Laika, on a trip of no return into the lifeless emptiness of outer space.

According to the review of the book in the Economist:
"European and American fiction moved on from this kind of relentless nihilism, this fascination with “feelings of immeasurable emptiness”—not to mention a fixation with the Beatles—quite some time ago. But in Japan it is still popular, especially among a burgeoning new generation of so-called “freeters”: young people who cannot be bothered to get a full-time job because, like Mr Murakami’s latest heroine, Sumire, they can live off their parents. Translated into English and shipped back to Europe and America, this dark, if not particularly original, brew is rapidly attaining cult status in the West too."

Maybe. I have no idea what is, or isn't cultist. And anyway, I often have the feeling that the world has moved on in various directions to places where I simply don't want to be! The Economist may object to "freeters" in the modern world. But where would we be without them? I can imagine that the writers for The Economist would dismiss most of us at the University as being mere "freeters" as well!
    So I thought it was a great book, and I've gone into the bookshop at the University and have gotten the two other books by Murakami which were also on the shelf there. Namely, "Norwegian Wood" and "South of the Border, West of the Sun". I almost wish I could read Japanese so that I could read these things in the original. When I do get around to reading them, I'll report on it here:

Norwegian Wood: This book is very different from Sputnik Sweetheart. In fact, this week I saw in the paper that a small, local "arts" cinema here was showing a movie based on another book of Murakami: "Tony Takitani". So we went to see it. Unfortunately these "artistic" people don't bother with the ventilation of their small cinema, and although nobody smokes these days in such a room, the remains of earlier smoke are still present. Also my increasingly inflexible back fits badly into such well-padded, but for me, ill-formed, chairs. Nevertheless it was an extremely interesting film. Much better than the junk Hollywood has degenerated into producing these days. (The last thing we saw was The Aviator, which was so astonishingly stupid that we left after having tediously endured the whole first half of that ridiculous nonsense!) But to return to Tony Takitani, despite the fact that was quite a moving film, in the end it was really nothing more than a sketch of the plot of the book. Rather like reading the comic book versions of the "classics", instead of having to read them to make some dreadful "book report" for the English class at school. So this shows that, at least with books such as those of Murakami, there is always much more to the book than can be dealt with in a 90 minute movie. Tony Takitani doesn't seem to have been translated into English yet. But at least it was clear that the plot was totally different from that of Sputnik Sweetheart, and also that of Norwegian Wood.
    So what is Norwegian Wood all about? It's longer than Sputnik Sweetheart. Also it's a more complicated story. But also a much more "normal" story. So in this sense I was a bit disappointed. After finishing it, I saw that the translator, Jay Rubin, had written a few notes at the back, describing the circumstances surrounding this book. Apparently many of Murakami's fans in Japan were also disappointed when this book first came out in 1987, since it is just a "normal" love story. But it must have struck a chord of very great resonance in the Japanese mentality at that time, since it sold over 4 million copies. That is to say, something like one in every twenty five Japanese bought this book! So practically every one of them who has managed to elevate him, or herself above the level of the "classical comics" has read it! Murakamai was shocked by this, and he escaped from the country. He lived in Europe, then the USA until 1995, when he finally ventured to return to Japan. But he refused to be drawn into any television appearances, or whatever.
    It seems that with Norwegian Wood he had set himself the challenge of writing a "normal" novel, just to see what it would be like. It deals with the life of a student, Toru Watanabe, in Tokyo in the later 1960s. According to the notes at the end of the book, many readers assumed that the story was taken from the life of the author during that phase of his life. But he said that his actual life was much less interesting, and it would only take 15 pages to describe it, rather than the 386 pages of this book. Of course I was also a student in the later 1960s, and I can say that my life - at least in relationship to the aspects dealt with in the book - was so boring that it could be described in less than one page!
    Watanabe (the name sounds to me like "Wanabe" - or "Want to be" - which is somewhat distracting) was 19, going on 20 years old. He was surrounded by girls who loved him. His late-adolescent sexual fantasies were not not merely fantasies, but were lived out, in explicit detail. His girlfriends were certainly not backward in describing their sexual fantasies to him as well. But all of these sexual aspects of things did not bring him happiness and fulfillment. His primary girlfriend, Naoko, was really the girlfriend of his best friend at school. But then, while still at school, that friend committed suicide, for some unexplained reason, by sitting in a car in a closed garage, with the car's exhaust brought through a tube into the interior of the car. Both Watanabe and Naoko were devastated. They went for long walks together, day after day, gradually coming together, even though both knew that the dead friend was really the middle point of their relationship. But then, when Naoko was younger, she had suddenly come into her sister's room to tell her that dinner was ready, and she found her hanging dead by a rope around her neck. To make matters worse, a brother or sister of her father or mother had also committed suicide. This really ran in the family! So she ended up in a place which was a kind of mix between a hippy compound out in the mountains back of Kyoto, and a mental hospital. Watanabe was thinking of her all the time, longing for her, writing her long love letters. She also longed for him - sort of - but in the end, family tradition took the upper hand, and she went out in the middle of the night to the surrounding mountainous forests and hung herself from the branch of a tree, for some unexplained reason. This devastated Watanabe. Luckily though, he had already found the perfect companion in Midori, who was a wonderful girl, a fellow student. The fact that he felt much guilt with respect to Naoko was the cause of great initial difficulties with Midori, and I suppose these feelings were then a cause of further disruptive emotions in their later life together, which was no longer part of the scope of this book. But still, Murakami writes so beautifully that his challenge to himself of turning such a gushy story into something good was, indeed, a great success.
    One thing that I can't restrain myself from mentioning is that this book, like so many books dealing with students and the 1960s, describes a spirit of anarchy on the campus. Here in Germany, and particularly in France, they seem to have made a great myth out of the "spirit of '68", and so on. Well, in 1968 there was no more anarchy at the Australian National University than there was in any other year that I know of. I was just trying to pass my exams, like everybody else. And I suppose that any Australian students who felt dissatisfied with life could always - and did! - just go out into the hugeness of the great Australian bush and get back to normal. But why did these Japanese and German and French students make such a big deal of 1968? What did it have to do with them? After all, I was drafted to go to Vietnam and become involved in that mess, not the students of France, Germany, or Japan! So I had to keep studying, for its own sake, but also to keep my deferment from the draft alive. Luckily the "Coalition of the Willing" of those days saw sense before I had finished my studies. So I escaped!
    Back then in 1968, LBJ, the then President of the USA, was keen on keeping the coalition going, so he dropped in to Canberra to make sure the Prime Minister was not about to get cold feet. Out of curiosity, I drove out to Canberra Airport to have a look at him. Maybe 200 other people had the same idea. So they had put up a rope on the grass next to the tarmac, to say that that was where the public should stand. To begin with, one big jet landed before the one which was carrying LBJ, and from it emerged a large, black, vintage convertible Cadillac, surrounded by men in black suits with conspicuous bulges under their arms. I walked over and peered into the Cadillac. It contained three or four machine guns of the kind one used to see in gangster movies of the Chicago mafia of the 1930s. Those large, disc-like cannisters filled with machine gun bullets hanging below the firing mechanism. After admiring all this mafia-like stuff, I wandered back to the rope and watched LBJ's airplane land at Canberra. It taxied over to us, he got out, descended the gangway, spoke to some official-looking types, then decided to walk along the rope and shake hands with the people standing there. So I shook his hand. He really had a big hand. Very thick and muscular. I've never shaken hands with a bigger, stronger hand than that in my whole life, even though here in Europe it's normal to shake hands with everybody. Indeed, he was a very tall, big man. His largeness doesn't come across in the pictures. So after this, he got in a closed Cadillac, or perhaps it was a Lincoln Continental, which they had also brought along with them, and I suppose he went over to the Prime Minister to give him a severe talking to. After that, he was scheduled to retire for the night at a certain hotel in Canberra. Along with a few thousand other people, I went there to demonstrate against him. We chanted things like "LBJ, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" And so on. But it got later and later in the evening. Still no LBJ. Finally it became known that, in his sneaky way, LBJ had sneaked in the rear entrance to the hotel, and had already retired for the night without experiencing our demonstration against him! So out of frustration and anger at this lowly example of his lack of character, everybody shouted "BOO" very loudly. I was extremely interested to see that it was this moment which made all the international television news on that day.

South of the Border, West of the Sun: If Norwegian Wood was based - ever so loosely - on 15 pages worth of the life of the author as a student in Tokyo, then this book deals (again loosely) with 7 or 8 pages worth of his childhood before leaving for the big city, and then another 7 or 8 pages worth of a rather premature midlife crisis at the age of 37 years. It fast-forwards through the student-in-Tokyo phase of things, since that has already been dealt with in the previous book. His name is no longer Watanabe, but rather Hajime - which seems to me to be a bit more settled, as a name. Nevertheless, the character is again full of his desperate sexual adventures with various girlfriends. The ones from his childhood come back to haunt him in his later life. The more intense childhood girlfriend was Shimamoto, who he knew from his toddler period up to the age of 12. (Of course - even for Hajime, with his enormous libido - this was still the pre-sexual phase of things.) I think that Shimamoto was her last name. Then when he met her - or perhaps he just met her haunting image - during the midlife-crisis phase of this book, he called her Shimamoto-san. The other childhood girlfriend was Izumi. In contrast to Shimamoto, Izumi hated him, since he had gone off and had a number of intense encounters with her cousin. So our hero just dropped Izumi, even though she loved him. Thus the vision of her which came to haunt him later was of an empty, but rather insane woman. As we can well imagine, all of this caused rather a strain on his otherwise happy marriage, during this early middle-aged phase of his life, to his wife Yukiko.
    I very much like the name "Yukiko", since it reminds me of a book I read many years ago by Macdonald Harris (that was just a pseudonym; his real name was Donald Heiney). He dealt with some of the same themes as Murakami, but in a much lighter, more varied way. Quite frankly, I have now had enough of Murakami, at least for the time being. How nice it would be to read a few of the Macdonald Harris' books which I haven't yet read! But unfortunately, some time ago I looked into this and I found that his books are all out of print and unobtainable. How ephemeral these things are! Macdonald Harris was a great writer, so I think this is really a shame. He combined a dream-like world of the inner thoughts with interesting adventures in the outer world. For me, at least, this is preferable to Murakami's heavy Japanese egotism.
    But getting back to the present book, the title consists of two parts. "South of the Border" (down Mexico way) was a song of Nat King Cole, back then in the 1950s, or early 60s. It was on an LP which was part of Shimamoto's father's record collection, which she played when Hajime visited her. "West of the Sun" is the thought that perhaps there is a farmer living all alone in the barren wasteland of the Siberian tundra, toiling away, trying to grow crops. Everything is flat; the Sun circles around the sky from East to West day after day, year after year in its hopeless journey through remorseless time. The farmer then becomes insane, and trudges off toward the West, soon to stumble and lose his life's energies.
    During Hajime's midlife crisis, he owned two "jazz bars", or "clubs" in Tokyo. This reflects the fact, mentioned in the biographical notes of the author, that Murakami himself opened a "jazz club" in Tokyo called "Peter Cat". I couldn't really picture what this was, since I have almost no experience at all of visiting "jazz clubs". There is a kind of jazz club here in Bielefeld called "Bunker Ulmenwall". I've only once been there. The brother of a friend is a professional jazz saxophonist, whose style is totally non-melodic. He produces strange, often disturbing noises on his instrument, using a most extreme technique. So we went down into "The Bunker", which is a small, dark, underground cavern, surrounded by reinforced concrete many meters thick - built to protect the Nazi functionaries of Bielefeld from World War II bombs - and listened to this stuff. (I'm sure that the fate of those horrible old functionaries was not protected by all of this concrete. But at least they left something solid for posterity to think about.) During this "concert", if you could call it that, a couple of people were drinking beers, but the bar was a rather primitive, simple affair. People came to hear this strange music, in this strange room. It certainly isn't a place to go and expect to eat expensive tid-bits! "Designer clothes" would be very out of place indeed! Old jeans, T-shirts, maybe an old sweater would be the appropriate attire. Actually, I read just a couple of weeks ago that Gilad Atzmon (see above) had come to Bielefeld and played in The Bunker. I really wished that I had known about it, since I would have liked to have seen him. But in the interview in the paper, he said (if I recall it rightly) that The Bunker is really cool, and also the reviewer in the paper found his playing to be cool. So perhaps he will make another appearance in the not-too-distant future.
    What a contrast this is with the "jazz club" which Murakami describes in his book! He makes a great effort to buy expensive Italian clothes, in the hope that this will encourage people with more money to come and spend it on the complicated and expensive "designer" cocktails, which he has devised for his jazz bar. He explains in great detail to Shimamoto that while anybody can just follow the instructions about mixing a drink, still it only tastes good if he spends lots of money getting the "best" bartender to work for him. Then he makes sure to pamper his star bartender with lots of little things, in order to get even more expensive people to keep coming to his club. The club itself is in a building which his father-in-law, the yakuza-linked building contractor, has just finished building in a modern, expensive fashion. (He gets angry with his wife at one stage, since he becomes frustrated with the fact that the father-in-law is drawing him into dangerous mafia wheelings and dealings with the yakuza.) So he gives much thought to having the best, most expensive interior decorator come to do things up from time to time. Also he designs expensive little things to eat, to go with the cocktails. That way, he hopes that the people become motivated to get even more drunk in their designer fashions, listening to the "jazz" music.
    How could anybody play jazz in an atmosphere like that? I can hardly imagine it. The only thing I can imagine is something like the hotel bar-lounge in that movie "Lost in Translation". Tinkling sort of distant "musak". Playing the "evergreens" of "easy-listening" music to deaden the trivial conversations at the tables, while Bill Murray drinks one whiskey after the other, before Scarlett Johansson gets him away from that dreadful "jazz club" and out into the real world. Imagining this, I can understand why the real Murakami looks run-down - exhausted - in his portrait pictures.

Inspector Morimoto and the Diamond Pendants, by Timothy Hemion

    How pleasant it was to read this book after all that heavy stuff of Murakami! But I wonder what Japanese readers would prefer? Do they really see the world in terms of the death-driven, erotic insanity of Murakami's characters? I did very much enjoy the first of Murakami's books (Sputnik Sweetheart) which I read, but the others just seemed to wallow in a senseless depression. Timothy Hemion obviously has first-hand experience of Japan, and I suppose he must know many people there who have a very different existence from that typically described by Murakami. In any case, thankfully, Morimoto and Suzuki remain concentrated on the task at hand. There is no question of any dark, insane motives behind their thoughts. I have noticed that in the academic world, the Japanese often seem to maintain a very strict hierarchal system of going about things. One sometimes sees them appearing in little groups. These consist of (i) the famous old professor, then (ii) traveling with him, two or three middle-aged, obsequious half-professors, then (iii) traveling along behind them, four or five groveling assistants. So I suppose it is natural for the lowest orders of this hierarchy to lose themselves in suppressed images of erotic dementia. Perhaps this is better than the system followed by the rest of the academic world, where everybody engages equally in a free-for-all. At least Morimoto and Suzuki - to the lasting frustration of the Chief of Police - remain capable of thinking freely.
    The Diamond Pendants was an interesting story. But I must admit that I couldn't really understand the reason why Mr. Kyomachi was prepared to go along with the plan of Mrs. Uehara. After all, surely he could have just sold his kimono business to somebody else for the same amount of money, without getting himself into trouble like this. Could his rivalry with the kimono shop in Hiroshima (and the parallel rivalry of the diamond obsessions of the old wives) really have been so great as to make him do such a thing? Also, I wondered how Morimoto and Suzuki would have been able to cope with the whole thing if Mr. Izumi hadn't gotten himself run over by a car at the critical moment?

The Thirteenth Tribe, by Arthur Koestler

    While in the middle of reading our next book ("Reading Lolita in Tehran", ... see below...), I happened to get into this one. I'm sure that there are various fanatical persons of one persuasion or another who would object to either this book, or else to that of Azar Nafisi, or in fact to both! I can only hope that no such people will ever find themselves clicking into my website.
    It would seem that now, at the beginning of the 21st century, various religious movements are making a resurgence. Could it be that the world is descending again into a new dark age of religious superstition? Perhaps it's true. But at least now, when I am writing this, there is still a long way for the world to fall in such a direction. So if it is indeed going in that direction, it will thankfully be of no concern to me in my lifetime! Looking at the three great monotheistic religions, we see that (i) Ariel Sharon is not making a good figure for Judaism, (ii) unpleasant outbursts disrupt the Islamic world, and (iii) George W. Bush, the defender of Christianity, sees to it that the air in various non-Christian (particularly Islamic) regions of the world becomes filled with cancerous depleted uranium oxide.
    One might draw some loose parallels between this present situation, and that which existed almost 1500 years ago. In those days the Khazar peoples occupied the regions of west-central Asia somewhat to the west of the present Kazakhstan. They found themselves being attacked on the one hand by the initial fanatical waves of Islamic conquest, and on the other by the Byzantine armies of Christianity. Then there were the assorted assaults from the various wild, mounted tribes of central Asia. The Khazars were able to withstand these forces for a few hundred years, providing a bulwark of civilization in that area of the world. In the later phases of this period, they shielded Byzantium from the violent attacks of the Rus - the Viking founders of Russia, who came from Sweden. (An interesting detail here, which Koestler mentions, is that the word "Rus" stems from the Germanic Viking word for "rowers".) For some byzantine reason or another, Byzantium decided to dump the Khazars, and back instead the Rus, who were occupying Kiev. This turned out not to be a very brilliant move, since the Rus, despite their ability to terrorize other peoples, did not have the stamina to hold off the eastern tribes, thus exposing Europe to the Mongols, and what have you.
    So I found this book to be an interesting history of that part of the world through the middle ages. However Koestler's motivation for writing the book was the fact that the Khazars, who seem to have been an open-minded and tolerant people, became to some extent a sort of melting-pot of cultures. Thus they gradually adopted the Jewish religion, out of choice, rather than being forced into Islam or Christianity, as was the fate of many other, weaker tribes, during that period. The picture one has is of a country rather like Holland, a thousand years later, tolerant of people who have been persecuted elsewhere.
    Koestler, who according to the biographical notes was himself born in Hungary to people of Jewish descent, then attempts in the second part of the book to show that he himself - along with most other people who today claim Jewish ancestry - is descended mainly from the Khazars. Perhaps this is true. Perhaps Ariel Sharon would not like it to be true, whether it is or not. In any case it is clear that a person such as Benjamin Freedman was not happy with the idea. But as far as I can see, if one were to have a choice of ancestors, the Khazars would be preferable to the Caucasians, who today are regarded as trouble-makers. (Although the descendants of the Rus are certainly giving them all the cause in the world to make trouble!) In fact, given the proximity of the Caucasus Mountains to the area that the Khazars inhabited (it was their southern boundary), I wonder if Caucasians and Khazars are simply different names for the same people? Anyway, this is all speculation, and so Koestler limits himself to a shorter analysis of these aspects of things.

Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi

    This is a sad, claustrophobic book. We all remember the situation 25 years ago. The Shah of Iran was reviled with his horrible SAVAK, which (according to the Wikipedia online encyclopedia) was established with the aid of the CIA in 1957. He was overthrown in the Islamic Revolution of that wildly fanatical old man, Ayatollah Khomeini, in 1979. The Ayatollah, declared that "we", or at least the USA, were the "great Satan", and anyone living in Iran who had anything to do with western civilization should be arrested by the morality police, thrown into some repulsive Abu-Graib of the Islamic world of those days, tortured, raped, and then perhaps executed at the whim of the morality guards. Surely - given that situation - any sensible Iranian could see that the best thing to do would be to escape from such madness!
    So how can we understand that the author of this book, who was safely living in the USA, chose to travel back to Tehran at just this time, and then started teaching English Literature at the University of Tehran, making a big point of emphasizing the importance of the "American Dream" in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald? Or even in Nabokov's Lolita! She is certainly lucky to have survived the experience (in contrast to many of her students - some of whom may have become "Islamic martyrs", but also some of the female ones experienced horrid, sordid ends in the Islamic prisons). It is difficult for me to understand someone like her. She would undoubtedly find it to be equally difficult to understand Lucretius' thoughts, which were also written in a troubling time, long ago:

"Nothing is more delightful than to possess lofty sanctuaries serene, well fortified by the teachings of the wise, whence you may look down upon others and behold them all astray, wandering abroad and seeking the path of life: - the strife of wits, the fight for precedence, all laboring night and day with surpassing toil to mount upon the pinnacle of riches and to lay hold on power. O pitiable minds of men. O blind intelligences! In what gloom of life, in how great perils is passed all your poor span of time! not to see that all nature barks for is this, that pain be removed away out of the body, and that the mind, kept away from care and fear, enjoy a feeling of delight!"

    What was going on between Iran and the USA back then in the 1980s, and what is going on now? Now, at the time I am writing this, in the summer of 2005, the news is that the "wrong" person was elected by the population of Iran, in a landslide victory, to be their new President. Therefore, according to the "neo-cons" in Washington, it follows that "we" should send a few warplanes over there to drop some bombs on them, to teach them a good lesson. Or perhaps "we" should form another "Coalition of the Willing" to invade Iran, thus becoming involved in another quagmire, next to Iraq. What does Azar Nafisi think of such an idea, living as she does now, in Washington D. C.?
    In a better world, Iran would not be cursed with all that mineral oil, oozing out of the earth. The oil oligarchs of the USA would be attacking other targets. And the refined classes of Persian civilization would not be seeking their refuge next to these oligarchs. In her long descriptions of that dreary reenactment of World War I, namely the war of the 1980s between Iran and Iraq, she treats it as a kind of natural catastrophe. But we all know how it came about! We have all seen the cynical handshake of a younger version of Donald Rumsfeld with the younger version of Sadam Hussien, who was portrayed in those days as our hero in the Middle East, keeping the excesses of Islam under control. The arms deals, to keep the fighting going. Never once does she allow her thoughts to venture into such dangerous directions. Perhaps this is human nature. Or perhaps she now just wants to live peacefully in the USA, her reserves of protest exhausted from the time back then in Tehran.
    Her book is organized around a number of authors she was assigning to her classes to read back in those days. Her favorites were especially Henry James and Nabokov. Often she spends pages recalling the details of just how she taught her class. When I look at her picture in the link I have given above, with her defiant, proud eyes, I feel guilty for writing such easy banter as I have been doing here on my website. OK, OK. I admit that I must have read Portrait of a Lady, many years ago. But I have forgotten it. I just read things for fun. And for me, Henry James is like a jarringly loud, uninspired modern orchestra, playing some of that heavy, late romantic music of the 19th century. Thank goodness I am not an "English Literature Major"! And thank goodness pure mathematics has nothing to do with human morality! But quite frankly, I found her remarks on the life of Henry James to be rather strange. She says that he managed to avoid the draft in the American Civil War by claiming that he had a bad back. Fair enough. Then between the end of that war, and the start of World War I in Europe, he spent 40 years being continuously invited to dinner partys and various tete-a-tetes with the English upper classes, with all their ill-gotten riches. At the outbreak of war, when he was a frail old man and thus not in danger of being drawn into any military draft, he suddenly became an extremely emotional propagandist for the killing fields. Urging, even goading other countries to throw their young men into the killing. For Nafisi, this seems to have been nothing more than a further demonstration of the pure and honest heart of her hero! I'm afraid that after reading those passages in the book, I rather lost contact with it, and so just skimmed the last 100 pages in order to be able to hold my own at our meeting in a weeks time.
    I certainly agree with Nafisi that literature is about dreams. But she was being disingenuous to say that books are not dangerous. It is unreasonable to say that Lolita, with Nabokov's elegant, provoking language, has never inspired one of those disgusting pedophiles to go ahead with his horrible deeds. And indeed, her experiences in Tehran only serve to prove in a most drastic way the dangers inherent in those two famous works of world literature: the Bible and the Koran.

    Reading all of this which I have written, it seems too negative. The fact that she, an intelligent person, saw fit to return to Iran at that time, still mystifies me; but perhaps, again, it is part of human nature to take such a step. Also the fact that she concentrates so much on Henry James can be seen in a positive light. (Of course if it was Henry Fielding, then I could fully understand her!) But given that literature can be dangerous, and given that she was living through a period when students in Iran could be provoked into doing dangerous things, then surely it was a good thing to cool off their passions. Reading the literature of Henry James is certainly an appropriate method of doing that! How dreadful it must have been for her to have to lecture, week after week, with agressive students sitting at the back, ranting on about their religious propaganda, then writing down her every word to make their reports later to the religious police! But at least she did have good times with her private circle of women students, meeting rather conspiratorially in her apartment in Tehran.

The Spice Route, by John Keay

    The writing in this book, true to the subject matter, is a bit flowery. But it is interesting. The book starts off with a description of the Banda Islands, which are located just south of Ceram, which itself is located in the east of Indonesia, just west of New Guinea. For thousands of years, the Banda Islands were the only source of nutmeg and mace in the world, even though they are each only a couple of square miles in area. The Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, Middle Aged Europe, and so on, all used these spices and thought that they were extremely fine and expensive. Cloves came from the tiny island of Ternate, a bit north of Ceram, and west of Halmahera. These were the "spice islands". Over the centuries, much of the impetus for the discovery of the world's geography arose from attempts to find the spice islands and thereby to turn a profit. After all, Columbus discovered America when looking for spices.
    While being immersed in all of this spice business, I wondered what "mace" is. Here in Germany the various spices and dried herbs, "pizza" spices, or "grill" spices, or "curry" spices, are arranged in the supermarket in little packages, or little glasses or tins (depending on the brand) in alphabetical order. So I examined the spice rack, peering toward the middle, somewhere between "g"rill spice, and "p"izza spice, but I found no "mace". Also no "nutmeg". Since I am totally ignorant of such things, the best thing seemed to be to return home and look in the English-German dictionary. There I saw that "nutmeg" is the common spice "muskat" in German. Also "mace" is called "muskat blüte".
    So this is already interesting. The word "muskat" undoubtedly refers to the town of Muscat in Oman, on the south shore of the Persian Gulf. This was the furthest point at the edge of the earth, which Europeans in the Middle Ages could think about as being the source of nutmeg. But, of course, Muscat is already a quarter of the way around the globe in relation to the Banda Islands, along the Spice Route. On the other hand, the relationship of nutmeg to mace is more accurately described in German, since mace surrounds nutmeg in the nutmeg fruit.
    Thus I returned to the supermarket and, although all the different brands offered "muskat" under "m", only one of the more obscure brands had "muskat blüte" alongside "muskat". Therefore I bought a little package of mace for one euro thirty, or something, for 30 grams of the stuff. This is the finest of the fine spices, the most exclusive luxury which a degenerate Roman patrician could serve his guests. Back home, I took a sniff of it, but it smelled just like muskat to me. According to the book, all of those Greeks and Romans, the princes of Old Europe, and the potentates of the East, used to improve their wine and ale with mace. So I put a little pinch of it into a glass of beer. But to be absolutely frank, in my opinion, beer tastes better sans mace! In fact, I think that the bitter taste of it doesn't go at all well with beer. Perhaps one of these days I will try a microscopic pinch of it in a glass of wine, just for the experience, but I already know, without trying it, that it will ruin a good glass of wine as well. In fact, to be honest, while I agree that spicy Indian food, properly made in an Indian restaurant is great, still, at home, just cooking vegetables and things, I find that the best taste is achieved by refraining from the use of spices altogether. For example I just like frying some bacon, then on top of that vegetables and some sour cream. For me, this gives a very nice taste.
    The edition of the book which I have is from the Folio Society, and thus it has lots of interesting illustrations as well. And lots of interesting and obscure facts. For example, by the 3rd or 4th centuries B.C., sailors had taken to blue water sailing, crossing directly from the Red Sea, across the Indian Ocean to the Malabar (west) coast of India. At the right season of the year, the trade winds brought you across in two weeks or so with the "Hippalos" winds, named after the (perhaps mythical) Greek navigator who discovered them. Then at the opposite season of the year, according to the monsoon, the winds brought them back. A whole fleet of ships was engaged in this trade, bringing pepper, nutmeg, and so on to the Arabian, and on to the Mediterranean world.
    But things became disgusting when the Portuguese finally rounded the Cape of Good Hope. Vasco da Gama was a monster, who killed and tortured all he encountered with his religious lust and zeal. The description of his hideous path of pain and destruction down the west coast of India is sickening. But at least reading about such things puts the present situation in the Persian Gulf, where  the fight is for oil, rather than pepper, into perspective. Later the Dutch also appeared. They had easy pickings of the corrupt and immoral Portuguese remnants in the Indian Ocean. But they also fell into brutality. For example they practically exterminated the entire population of the Banda Islands, replacing them with slaves captured from other islands in the Indonesian archipelago. The individual slave owners were brutal, drunken, European criminals. The English East India Company tried competing with the Dutch for the spice trade, but the trade with other commodities from the Far East proved more successful. In those days, as today, there were people who said that Asians - or whatever - were used to brutality. But the author of the present book shows that this is not true. Asian observers of the Portugese rape of the Indian Ocean declared this to be worse than anything in previously known history.
    It was interesting to see that the French, who are well known for their culinary accomplishments, only make a fleeting appearance in this whole story, toward the end. Pierre Poivre (or "Peter Pepper") was able to smuggle some seedlings of nutmeg and clove out from the the Dutch-controlled spice islands and cultivate it elsewhere - in particular in Mauritius - thus breaking forever the Dutch monopoly. So I was happy to learn that it is not only today that the French are preserving a modicum of civilization in the middle of an increasingly brutal western society. In earlier centuries they were also playing a more noble role.

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

    This is a very unusual book! Beginning with the lack of a "The" in the title! "Pi" is the Greek letter used to denote the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. This is also very interesting. I suppose there are books written on the life of that pi. But the protagonist of the present story was named Piscine, which was an embarrassment owing to the fact that it sounds like the word for urination. Thus he decided to call himself Pi.
    Toward the end of the book, when his traveling companion, a tiger named Richard Parker, departs, he regrets the fact that the departure is so abrupt, without a proper ending. He compares this with what he perceives as the unsatisfactory fact that the number pi, when written as a decimal expansion, also comes to no proper end. He would prefer it to be a boring rational number! Yet pi is so interesting that it is even difficult to prove that it is irrational. It was only in 1882 that Lindemann was able to prove that pi is a transcendental number. (See, for example, the book by Hardy and Wright.) It is a beautiful proof which takes a couple of hours to explain. This will be the way I will end my lectures on Elementary Number Theory next semester!
    The basic story in the present book is that Pi is an Indian, living in Pondicherry, on the south-east coast of India. (Pondicherry also played a big role in "The Romantics"; see above.) We learn that Pondicherry was a French colony. I didn't know that. Pi's family has a zoo there, but life becomes impossible under Indira Gandhi, so they decide to move - together with various animals - to Canada. The ship they are on sinks in the Pacific, and Pi is left on a lifeboat with a number of animals which soon kill themselves off in a horrible way, leaving him alone with the tiger. Eventually he drifts to the shore of Mexico and is saved.
    The book starts off with long discussions of (i) the proposition that animals really like to live in zoos, and (ii) religion. As far as (i) is concerned, he compares the state of an animal in a zoo with a human being in a hotel, where you do not have to pay. Given that the natural state of humanity is in the African savanna, hungry, cringing from the roars of lions, hyenas, and other vicious animals, then I agree that hotel life would be superior. But it seems to me that the natural state of humanity is living freely in a house, the inside of which is kept as free as possible from other animal life - particularly that of cats of all sizes. Given this, then the analog of a zoo would be a prison, which for many reasons is vastly inferior to the natural life of a human being, living in a house.
    As far as (ii) is concerned, Pi decides to become a member of the three religions - Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam - simultaneously. (For some reason, he leaves out Judaism.) The priests of those respective religions object, which seems to Pi to be evidence that they are not sufficiently open-minded. Yet perhaps he misunderstands the true meaning of religion here. As an example of this, I recently read that a priest of the Church of England was excommunicated only a few years ago. His crime was to publish a book in which he established the extremely rational thought that the word "God", which fills the pages of not only the present book, but innumerable other books as well, should not be thought to be a word totally devoid of meaning. Instead it could best be defined as being the sum total of the assumptions underlying a given human society, distinguishing it from other societies. This is the reason that so many wars are fought in the name of "God", and it is also the reason that different religions are totally incompatible with one another. Of course I do not necessarily agree with this definition. Another definition would be the seeming mystery of our existence in the world. And the fact that pi is transcendental.
    In the middle of the book, I began to get bored with it. It would obviously be horrible to live in close proximity to a tiger. Cats are very dumb animals. I've read that people have discovered that sharks can learn new things 100 times more quickly than cats. I can believe it! So the idea of Pi living for months like this, exploiting the dumbness of the tiger, is perhaps plausible, but it is no more horrible than the people who put themselves in a cage with poisonous spiders, or snakes, or what have you, and live there for months in the hope of obtaining an obscure entry in the Guinness Book of Records. I certainly couldn't be bothered to read a 400 page book of the true exploits of such a person. In fact we haven't even bothered to buy the Guinness Book of Records! But the book did pick up at the end, where Pi began to hallucinate and experience various dream-like worlds. Perhaps - as he described it to a pair of curious Japanese investigators - he really shared the lifeboat with some other human beings who were as cruel and dumb as cats. I'm sure the real Guinness Book of Records records such true instances. In this case, Pi was the one person who survived.

The Time of our Singing, by Richard Powers

    Back in the 1950s or 60s the "Top 10", or the "Top of the Pops", was an important musical genre. The Number One record for the week was the song which sold the most "singles" that week, or whatever. In order to achieve this, a song had to be played often on the big radio stations, like WABC, and so on. Thus the top DJ's of those days received hundreds, if not thousands of singles from all the obscure record labels of the country (the country being - of course - the USA) with the recommendation that they be listened to and played on the radio.
    Now it is a simple exercise in arithmetic to calculate that if each song lasts on average 4 minutes, and if a DJ receives 1000 new songs per week, then he would have to spend at least 4000 minutes, or 66 hours and 40 minutes, just picking out the new songs which he would like to play. But even in those days, the total normal working week was less than that. Therefore, it is an illusion to believe that the DJs of those days listened to all of the new songs right to the end. One quite rewarding alternative method of selecting songs was the "payola" system. But I did read that the more honest DJs tried listening to the first few seconds of each single, making a quick judgment about whether to chuck it into the garbage, or put it aside to listen to fully later on.
    In a similar way, I really shouldn't be writing anything about this book here, since I have not read it through to the end. But it is our next book, and I have bought it for 11 euros and something, so I feel entitled to write a little bit of nonsense. The big problem is that it is 631 pages long! And I am exhausted after reaching only page 44! My problem with this book starts on page 1. The narrator is describing a particular scene, where his brother is participating in a singing competition in a room at Duke University in North Carolina. He is about to launch into his contribution. This is described as follows:

    "One moment, the Erl-King is hunched on my brother's shoulder, whispering a blessed death. In the next, a trapdoor opens up in the air and my brother is elsewhere, teasing out Dowland of all things, a bit of ravishing sass for this stunned lieder crowd, who can't grasp the web that slips over them."

To begin with, what is the "Erl-King"? Perhaps this refers to some more or less obscure icon of modern American pop culture? On the other hand, googling the words in the internet, I see that it could very well refer to Goethe's poem "Erlkönig". How many readers of this book have gone to the trouble of understanding this reference? Or am I irresponsibly ignorant of German culture, despite the fact that I have been living here for over 30 years?
    The second sentence refers to the "ravishing sass" of Dowland, which stuns the "lieder" crowd. Which Dowland song could he possibly have been singing? For example "A Shepard in a Shade"? Or "Flow My Tears"? Now I know that Nigel Kennedy used to get carried away when referring to Vivaldi, calling him "Viv", and so forth, but to think of Dowland's music in terms of "ravishing sass" seems to me to be absolutely ridiculous! And why would a "lieder" crowd object to the Elizabethan melodies of Dowland? I find 19th century German romantic songs to be often very jarringly disharmonic. Surely any audience would react to the more soothing sounds of Dowland with relief, rather than being "stunned". So you see, all of this made no sense to me at all.
    Anyway, the book goes on and on in this rather hip-hop style for page after page. The basic story is that the hero's mother is of African-American ancestry, while his father is of German-Jewish ancestry. This results in him looking rather Arabian. So it is all extremely politically correct. By page 44, three defining moments in the great epic of the History of the USA have been placed in their politically correct perspective. I thank goodness that I am no longer a citizen of the USA! There is a constant jumble of names of mainly German composers from the classical period. The childhood of our hero was a mixture of euphoric musical experiences within the house and disastrous catastrophes outside of the house.
    Perhaps, as with the old DJs of bygone days, I may be missing the point of a good song here. But I can't be bothered to continue with this book. It's a shame, since I was just getting into the mood for reading a good book. What else is there? Let's see.......

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

    This book is the perfect antidote to the heavy, pretentious verbiage of Richard Powers! Why haven't I read anything of Jane Austen before? Or was I forced to read something at school, leaving me with an unfortunate mental blockage when thinking about her books? But in my present state of freedom to be able to read anything I want, and write whatever I want into such a "book report", I can really enjoy this book! Jane Austen's style is beautifully simple. Unpretentious. The whole book is gloriously "politically incorrect"! What more could one want?
    I was particularly interested to see that Jane Austen, a woman, represented most of the female characters, apart from Jane and Elizabeth, as being rather shallow and silly. The mother was particularly so. On the other hand, the male characters (apart from Wickham, Collins, and Sir William Lucas, all of whom were rather caricatured), and particularly the father, Mr. Bennet, were very sensible, attractive people of fine character. But since we live through the book within the personality of Elizabeth, we realize that it can also be wonderful to be a woman. Isn't this a more natural way of writing than the modern convention, where women writers are careful to put people of their gender into the best possible light, and I suppose the same can be said of men writers? After all, if, in the natural course of events, men are attracted to women, and women are attracted to men, then it is only pleasant that writers should write good things about people of the opposite gender.
    I only wished that we had more of a description of the subsequent joys of married life at Pemberley. That would have been a nice sequel to this book.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon

    Clicking into the internet (was it the Guardian's or the BBC's website?) I read a short article about mentally unstable people, and it mentioned this book as being the best description in literature of what such a person really feels.
    Well, I suppose we all experience all kinds of things in our minds from time to time. I once knew someone who had the condition which is often described as "schizophrenia", which is sometimes being unable to distinguish whether or not the voice in one's head is just internal, or whether it is really a voice of someone in the outside world. These "inner" voices are often extremely aggressive, so that it is a very frightening thing. I have read that this type of schizophrenia is not uncommon. It is accompanied by changes in the physical structure of the brain. One theory, which, for all I know, may have been disproved long ago, was that it was associated with the mother coming down with influenza at some stage of the pregnancy. This is certainly not the condition of having a "split personality", which used to be the definition of schizophrenia. I think that is called the "multiple personality syndrome" these days. I have read that is caused by extreme forms of abuse - particularly sexual abuse - during early childhood. Thus it is just another sad consequence of the disgusting behavior of some horrible people in the world.
    The person in this book, Christopher Boone, has neither of these conditions. As far as I understand it, he has a condition which would be called a form of autism. Perhaps it is a relatively mild form, since he is able to evade policemen, traveling on the train to London, a place he has never been before, and then he can find his way to the Underground, using it to transport himself to "Willesden Junction", all by himself, to find his mother in an obscure apartment many streets away from there. This is a feat which many "normal" 15 year-olds might have trouble duplicating. But I suppose if the book was about a person who was really far gone, then we would be unable to relate to the story at all. As it is, it is a moving story, very well and simply told as if it was written by Christopher himself.
     Before I had gotten the book, I suggested that it be the next book for our group to read. And two of the others, plus daughter, immediately said that they had just read it, and it was such a wonderful book. So I went into the university book store and found that they actually had it in their single column of shelves with English novels. Then when I was about to pay for it at the cash register, the fellow there started to tell me what a good book it is, and how important it is, and so on. But one or two students got in line, waiting to be served, and so that cut the conversation short. So this really is a book that for many people has a very powerful message; it is about real things - not just the nonsense which we too often have to put up with in many of these novels.
    As with Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, the protagonist is a "mathematical genius". But is he really? I suppose that the average reader, and film-goer, after reading and seeing these things, will conclude that most mathematicians suffer from one or another form of autism. But my observation is that almost all mathematicians are depressingly "normal". Perhaps many are rather self-centered, even to an extreme degree, but that is a different sickness than that which is being described in this book. And it is a sickness which infects people of other professions as well. In fact, the failings of real-life mathematicians are well described in this book. The true story is told of how a magazine described a curious consequence of probability theory. Afterward, numbers of professional mathematicians embarrassed themselves by writing foolish letters to the editor, displaying to all the world their total ignorance of the situation.
    A person with Christopher's form of autism would never make this mistake. He carefully collects huge amounts of information and devotes all of his mental energies to putting this information away into nice little cubby-holes in his mind. Only when everything fits nicely is he at peace with the world. Now it may be that there are professional mathematicians whose minds work like this. In fact, I suspect that these days many of the people in the mathematics departments of the world's universities are simply concerned with administering huge numbers of obscure and rather pointless facts. But surely the "true" mathematician, taking on the challenge of a great problem, avoids wasting his time on needless facts. Instead he is always looking for new, unusual thoughts, pursuing them to their conclusion, only to reject them. Seeking, but getting nowhere. Always eager for novelty, for the strange and unexplored. Perhaps this is also a sickness, but it is quite different from that of Christopher.

State of Fear, by Michael Crichton

    The reason I got this book was that I had read an amusing report in the paper about Crichton appearing before some committee of the US Congress, and causing a great stir owing to his physical presence (he is apparently six and a half feet tall, and from his pictures on his website, he appears to be about 35 years old, although he was born in 1942 - and thus he is actually 63, or something!). The report was amusing since it said that all the congress-people, full of their own importance, were surprised to find that most people found Crichton to be even more important! Furthermore, he dared to break the well-known taboo against criticizing the whole "climate change" and "global warming" movement, which we are constantly informed about on the daily television news. At this, it was said that that modern guardian of morality and righteousness, Hillary Clinton, got up and left the committee in a huff. How wonderful! It was furthermore said that Crichton had expressed his views on these matters in the present book. The bookstore here actually had a copy, so I bought it and have read it.
    In fact, just as I was in the middle of the book yesterday, I took the time off to watch the evening television news, and the top story was that a new, superior, German computer simulation had proved that global temperatures will rise by 10 degrees Celsius or so in the next 100 years, all the world's ice will melt, half the world will become flooded, and so on and so forth! So there you are. This is reality. As reported on the real television which we now have hooked up to a real satellite antenna (we had to put up this satellite antenna since they recently discontinued all but the government-run television being transmitted by the local television tower). So this is the reality which is beamed to us every day in a thousand or more channels from the television satellites up there in geo-synchronous orbit about the Earth.
    But to get onto this book.... It is certainly not great literature! It is written in the style of one of those silly movies of Steven Spielberg. Or I suppose one should really say it is written in the style of Crichton himself, since he is also part of the whole Hollywood nonsense. I did read "The Terminal Man", and also "The Andromeda Strain", and also "Eaters of the Dead" - at least I remember reading these things years ago. His standard style is short scenes, and a time-line, with the action building up from one scene to the next. Like a hectic movie. The characters are ridiculous. The heroes are academic wonder-children, obtaining their bachelors degrees and PhDs in no time at all, then being the objects of general wonderment in academia before disappearing into top-secret government functions of great importance. They are all top-flight mountain climbers, they fly helicopters, jumbo jets, they scuba-dive to impossible depths, and what have you. Their fingers fly over their laptop computers, obtaining the most obscure and relevant information in no time at all, thus enabling them to save the World from Disaster.* In short, they put James Bond totally to shame. The female characters are also vastly superior to those which poor James Bond had to put up with. They are not only athletic, nubile.... Also they obtained their bachelors, and PhD degrees in no time at all, are top-flight mountain climbers, and so forth.
    So why have I read this nonsense? The fact is that Crichton often has an extremely interesting and original idea which he is describing. It is science fiction, where the science often makes sense. (Sadly, he seems to be almost the only person still writing true science fiction. I'm not a fan of this genre, but as far as I can see, all the other "science fiction" authors simply churn out these Star-Trek, black-hole fantasies these days.) And he really seems to think that the message in this book is an important one which he must tell the world. Namely, the present state of the world is that most people enjoy turning their minds off and letting themselves be carried away into a groundless hysteria. Instead of this, people should try and make the effort of switching their minds into the "on" position and begin to think about things.
    It also seems to me that this might be a good thing. In fact, for a time I thought that I would put a few thoughts of my own on this subject into this website of mine. For example, thoughts on the AIDS hysteria, or on the sources of mineral oil. But then I thought that practically nobody reads this nonsense that I write here anyway. And if someone did happen to click in, then why should I put them off by going on about such things?
    It is amusing to follow this whole global warming business. The millions that some Max Planck Institute for something or other has spent on huge computers, where the general rule "garbage in - garbage out" holds sway. Crichton gives many real-world references which anybody can look up themselves. There is an extensive data bank of the temperatures at weather stations throughout the United States, going back to 1890 and beyond. It is interesting to see how temperature varies. For example the historical record for Plainfield N.J., near where I grew up, does show a more or less linear trend of temperature increase, from 1887 to the present. The Atlantic City Marina plot is similar. This is not the famous "L-shape" of climate hysterians. Many other weather stations show a temperature drop, or no general change. Why is the temperature changing? Crichton gives many thoughts on this subject. For example, we are perhaps still recovering from the "mini-ice age" of the 17th century. (In fact, the geological record shows that drastic changes in the climate on this Earth of ours are normal - even without human intervention.) But also, it may be that roads and buildings are gradually being built near to many weather stations, causing them to register higher temperatures. Perhaps in the old days, the weather stations were often painted with white-wash, since that makes them look so clean. But now, it may be thought that green paint makes them look more "ecological", and perhaps they thus absorb more of the sun's heat. Who knows? I am certainly not holding my breath waiting for the sky to fall down.
    I certainly don't agree with everything that Crichton says. For example he thinks that the Military-Industrial-Complex, the FBI, the CIA, and so on are benign organizations, protecting innocent people like us from the "eco-terrorists" of the Sierra Club, and what have you. This seems rather far-fetched. After all, it was the French Secret Service which blew up that Greenpeace boat, wasn't it? Not the other way around! Surely it is obvious from most of the rest of the television news that the Military-Industrial-Complex is still the greatest force for evil in the world. He also thinks windmills are guillotines for the birds. But I like windmills. I think they look good, and I think wind-power is better than smoky oil power, regardless of how much oil there actually is in the Earth. Besides, I have read that the danger for the birds has been greatly exaggerated.
    However, for me, the most amusing thing to follow on this whole topic has been the way German society has been dealing with these things. For all the time I have been here - over 30 years - the constant cry has been "Waldsterben" ( = "The forests are dying!"). Yet they are still here. The forests of Germany look just exactly as unhealthy as they did 30 years ago. On a recent trip into the earlier "iron curtain" - the epicenter of industrial pollution in Eastern Europe - we saw that the forests looked much healthier than they do in Germany. Why is this? Despite the fact that Germans are not allowed to swim in the lakes for fear of disturbing the birds, or the fishes, or something. Or - horror of horrors - they should never leave the marked paths through the forests, thus disturbing the plants! Those Eastern Europeans - as far as they look at their forests at all - they fight their way in, trampling down lots of plants, a true biological, or ecological catastrophe! So why are the German forests so sick? Surely the true reason is that they are not really forests, but rather tree plantations. The trees are "harvested" for their wood, and then the next lot of trees are planted in their place, without regard for replacing the nutrients which are thus lost from the soil. Any farmer knows that if you continually plant the same crops in a field year after year, the soil becomes exhausted. I scatter the ashes from our fireplace around the garden, and our trees are growing like crazy!
    Then there are other amusing Orwellian examples of old "new-speak" in modern German. For example "Pflanzenschutzmittel". That is a "plant protection substance". But this is just a euphemism for herbicides and insecticides! I could go on and on about such things, but I suppose enough is enough.
    One final thought: Nowadays, almost every second day, the local newspaper here has long articles praising the wonderful "ecological", "biological", vistas opened up by the prospect of people switching from heating their houses with mineral oil or gas to "pellets", which are just wood chips hacked up by some owner of a tree plantation in Germany, or Scandinavia, or somewhere. Given the absurd price charged for oil and gas at present, it is easy for these plantation owners to offer their pellets at much less relative cost. But what would be the result if everybody here changed to heating themselves exclusively with wood-burning stoves in winter? One need only look at the situation at Christchurch, New Zealand. They often have thick, choking smog! When I first came to Germany, there was often much smog in the air, but now, I never see it. The cars and the factories have all been fitted out with catalysers. How tragic it would be if all of this pollution were to return.
    We only occasionally use our fireplace, just once or twice a week in winter, particularly when the wind is blowing out into the open fields to the west of us. Our fireplace has a ceramic chamber - a kind of "afterburner" - at the back, so that when it gets hot, it is practically smokeless. But even if pellet burners do have such ceramic chambers (which I doubt, since they are expensive!) they still emit large quantities of polluting gases and fine soot particles, like diesel motors. Heating with natural gas is incomparably cleaner! The exhaust is mainly just water vapor. Furthermore, if the supply of natural gas does eventually become scarce (looked at in a sober way, without hysteria, one sees that the reserves are huge - enough to last for generations to come!) the world could then change over to heating with pure hydrogen, obtained using solar energy in the world's deserts. People with gas heating will hardly notice the difference.

(*) I can't restrain myself from noting that also Officer Suzuki, in Timothy Hemion's novels, is capable of obtaining huge amounts of relevant information via the internet and her laptop computer in almost no time at all. Why is it that I am usually unable to find some particular bit of information or another, despite the fact that I also have a laptop computer and a connection to the internet? Perhaps Timothy Hemion might tell me which websites Suzuki generally uses. (On the other hand, I suppose they are in Japanese, so I would be unable to read them!)

Rites of Passage, by William Golding

    Some years ago, I had a phase of reading through most of Golding's novels. So I thought that I would re-read this one again, out loud, in the evenings. I had really forgotten most of the story. Only the fumblings of Talbot and Zenobia had stayed in my mind. But that was only a small part of the whole drama, where Colley in the end managed to will himself to death.
    What can I write about a book like this? Golding was simply a great writer. I don't know if his books are now considered to be "classics" by the literature faculties of the world's universities. Certainly a person such as Azar Nafisi didn't mention him in her book. But I think Golding stands above all of today's writers - at least as far as I know them. There is a deepness, an elegance, which even that other Nobel Prize winner, V.S. Naipaul, doesn't achieve. The expression "Rites of Passage" seems to have taken on a life of its own in the English language. One sees it in various contexts in the newspapers, for example, from time to time.
    This book is the first of a trilogy, involving a passage on a sailing ship from England to Australia at the beginning of the 19th century. I remember that the 3rd book in the series - "A Fire Down Below" - made a great impression on me. But I've forgotten for the moment what the second book was. The great thing about the present book is how Golding writes essentially two different books - that is, the journals of two very different characters - both describing the same things, but from within different personalities. It is as if two totally different people have written the book.
    I am reminded of a very fascinating book I got many years ago from the Folio Society, describing the "Wreck of the Wager". That was a ship in Anson's fleet, which had rounded Cape Horn in 1741 and was proceeding up the coast of South America for the purpose of attacking Spanish shipping. The Wager was lost in a storm and became shipwrecked in the south of Chile. The book consisted of two parts. The first part was written by a gentleman, Lord Byron's grandfather, I think, who later became Admiral Byron. He survived by escaping to the North, allowing himself to be taken prisoner first by the local Indians, then by the Spanish. The second part was written by a common sailor who escaped in one of the ships boats to the South, going back through the Straights of Magellan, then making it back to England. This second account was rather desperate, since the author was being charged with mutiny. But the interesting thing was the difference in style - the whole way of thinking - between these two people.
    Those were two books - or journals - which were published back then in the 18th century, both describing an extreme, life-threatening situation. We see how different, different people are, and how their differing situations in life lead to these differences. I think it was an extraordinary achievement for Golding to recreate this situation in this novel.

Will in the World, by Stephan Greenblatt

    This is about William Shakespeare. An extremely interesting book. I suppose the whole world of Shakespearian scholarship is a world of its own. I have no real idea about it. Recently I read that two professors will publish a book next year, showing that Shakespeare was not the author, but rather it was Sir Henry Neville, whoever he was. Actually, he was a distant relative of Shakespeare who, unlike our hero, did not quit school at 12 years old, but rather continued on to get his Oxford degree. Then he became a distinguished ambassador, traveling to all the places which appear in the famous plays, and so forth. According to the article, the director of the re-created Globe theater in modern-day London agrees with this theory.
    But then it was supposed to be the Earl, or Count, or whatever, of Oxford who did the writing. Wasn't it? Or was it Francis Bacon? Somehow, I doubt that Bacon was the author. His style is much too dry and serious to be compared with Shakespeare. Who can read his essay "Of Masques and Triumphs" and still believe that he actually was Shakespeare? But I generally enjoy following such "conspiracy theories"; after all, who doesn't in this modern day and age when tall buildings seem to collapse at the drop of a hat? But the merit of the present book is that it shows that Shakespeare was not some shadowy Fata Morgana from the distant past. Indeed, he led a public life, and so we know more about it than we do about the lives of the various Earls, or Counts who have been put forward by generations of academic literary historians in his place.
    In today's world, people get dressed up nicely and pay lots of money to buy a ticket to see a performance of a Shakespearian play. They feel uplifted by this wonderful "culture". Taxpayers money is used to support this culture, for one reason or another. Perhaps politicians thus feel that they are doing "good" for the more refined classes of "society".
    What a contrast this is to the reality of Shakespeare's theater! The Globe - with a capacity of 3000 spectators - was situated next door to the bear-baiting theater. Queen Elizabeth was not only a fan of Shakespeare, but especially she enjoyed the bear-baiting, where she had her own royal box. So if, after spending your penny to get into the Globe, you found it too tame and boring, then you could just stroll over to the bear pit and go in there for a penny. Or alternatively, you could have a go in the many brothels filling the whole district. Or simply get drunk in the pubs. This was the cheap amusement district of London in those days. The great amusement at the bear pit was a bear whose eyes had been gouged out, and who was then attacked by bulldogs, ripping the flesh out of him. People laughed and laughed at this spectacle. How funny. The bear wasn't killed outright, but rather it was brought back again and again as a standing attraction for the theater.
    But it was a time of fearful hysteria. Anyone who was so rash as to keep on with Religion according to the catholic church would be arrested and hideously tortured for doing so! Thus it was an expression of hysterical relief for people to see the bears - who were thought to be ugly, devilish creatures - being tortured, rather then themselves. The pope had issued a fatwa on the life of Queen Elizabeth, and in the eventuality that someone were to succeed in assassinating her, then perhaps a person like Bloody Mary would assume the throne, thus torturing all the people who were trying to avoid torture under the protestant regime!
    Greenblatt shows that Hamlet was essentially concerned with the problem of purgatory. This was a horrible vision which had been invented by the catholic church in order to rake in huge amounts of money. The idea was that if you didn't pay the church, then your dead relatives would spend thousands of years in indescribable tortures in some chamber beneath the earth. Some people believed that Donegal Cave in Ireland had a passage into this purgatory, so that one could hear the screams of all the people there. Henry VIII very sensibly declared that this whole purgatory business was illegal, and he banned the various praying societies (monasteries, and what have you) which had been established by rich families to support this whole purgatory nonsense. But still, the human mind craves superstition. Shakespeare's son Hamnet (= Hamlet) died just before he wrote the play. And having read this book, I now begin to understand what the play was all about. It makes sense.
    Then there is Macbeth. This was written for James I, who was an extremely frightened man. Everyone was thinking of assassinating him. Yet he loved the theater, and he took over the protection Shakespeare's company, who were then known as The King's Men. James was particularly concerned about the problem of witches. He even wrote and published a book, Daemonologie, concerned with discovering and dealing with the disruptions of life caused by these appearances of the Devil into the world. He enjoyed personally examining cases of witchcraft (he particularly enjoyed the torturing of the witches, which he himself participated in). So Macbeth was written particularly for the King, just after the discovery of Guy Fawkes plot to blow up parliament. Its purpose was also to reassure King James that his distant, mythological Scottish ancestor ensured that his hereditary line would rule England forever.
    Many of the other major plays are similarly placed in their proper perspective, so that we can understand them. They make sense, not simply as expressions of "elevated culture", but rather as expressions of life in those days.

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

    An extremely sad, unsettling book. So unsettling as to make one feel quite sick! The narrative is told as a childish sort of essay by the narrator, Kathy, of her life. She grew up in a place in England similar to a boarding school. But in reality all the "students" had been cloned as copies of "normal" people in order to later cut out their organs for transplantation. According to the storyline, they could consider themselves to be privileged, since most other clones in their position were not treated so nicely before the "donation" and subsequent "completion" - which is the euphemism for death. The whole tearful process is further drawn out by the circumstance that after a "donation", every effort is made to revive the clones so that later they can donate further organs later on. The story was very well told, creating a whole world of such things.
    But still, it doesn't really make much sense, does it? It is supposed to take place in the 1990s, meaning that cloning was going on in the 1960s or so. But surely only the most rabid conspiracy theorist would believe this! And anyway, what is the sense of cloning people in the way described in the book?
    The problem being described here is that if you have some tissue of a different person, or an animal, or what have you, stuck inside you, then (assuming it is not in your digestive system) the immune system sets itself into motion to remove this foreign material from the body. This is a very natural, indeed an essential process for maintaining life.
    On the other hand, we are only mortal beings, so that eventually the body gives up, and we die. In earlier times, you might have been eaten by a lion, or a tiger, or something. These days, hardly anybody dies in this way. People starve to death, or die of some disease. Others are killed by the armies of the neo-colonial powers. But for most of us, at least in the "privileged" part of the world, the normal thing is that we just get so old and fragile that everything eventually winds down to a stop, during sleep if possible. Or we get cancer, and the whole body becomes overwhelmed with cancer cells. Or, perhaps, just one vital organ gives up for some reason. This last possibility is the problem.
    In the normal course of events, the failure of that organ poisons the rest of the body, and that then causes death. For example, have a look at Henry Fielding's account in a Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon. I suppose his kidneys had failed. Nevertheless, he lives his life to the end in as dignified a way as possible. But now modern medicine says no! You don't die. You are "saved", meaning that your life is prolonged by some years. You are "deferred", to use the expression in this book. Modern medicine inserts the corresponding organ from somebody else into your body to replace the defective one which you had. But your immune system then tries to get this foreign stuff out of the body! So you must take strong medicines to continuously suppress the immune system. This weakens your body. You easily become sick. It is likely that you can get cancer, and the body is unable to fight it. (If Ishiguro had consulted someone with a rudimentary knowledge of medicine, he would not have made the mistake of equating organ transplantation with curing cancer!) The medicines often make you feel sick. But still, the fear of death, and the expectations of modern society, make you go on with this whole business. Is this the true path to Nirvana and to enlightenment?
    There is a medical "solution" to this problem of the immune system rejecting the foreign organ. Namely, you can have a clone of yourself made, then take the organ from the clone. At least that would not be rejected. But this would only work for you. Not for anybody else. So the question is: Are there people who have clones made of themselves in order to "harvest" the organs? If so, they would only be the unspeakably rich. The oligarchs. And surely in that case, often they would need the organs quickly, when the clone is still just a baby, or a "junior" or so. So why did none of the juniors, or even the seniors who were friends of Kathy, mysteriously disappear from Hailsham from time to time? Ishiguro's story makes no sense here.
    But still, these thoughts open the possibility of a different, infinitely more disgusting true story. Do the oligarchs of the USA, or of Russia, do this? I hope not.
     On the other hand, it also makes no sense to say that Ishiguro's clones are being created in order to harvest their organs for other people. For then we again have the problem of the rejection of this tissue by the immune system. Therefore why clone people? In order to do that you need to get thousands of healthy eggs from "donor" women; they would be injected with the genetic material of somebody; a few of the egg cells might, for some reasons which are little understood, begin to multiply; almost all of them are defective; so after huge efforts, a single viable clone might be produced.
    Why don't we be clear about the brutal reality of the real world, as it really is? Surely the reality - which has already been dealt with in novels and movies over the past 20 or more years - is that mafia-like gangs prey on the poor defenseless street-children of South America and Africa. They are paid by horrible, bloated old people with too much money, who are afraid of life, and afraid of death. One can imagine that the poor children are even taken directly to the hospitals in North America, or Europe, or whatever, and to ensure the freshness of the sacrifice, they are there slaughtered for their organs. How sickening.
    Ishiguro's book will undoubtedly be taken as a very emotional reason to make all stem cell research illegal. This is a shame. An amorphous culture of stem cells cannot be equated with a group of children, as in this book. And perhaps such research offers a way out of this whole system of organ transplantation.
    I have never been able to understand why, on the one hand, people find cannibalism to be disgusting, and on the other, organ transplantation to be nice and "scientific" and modern? What is the difference between cannibalism and transplantation?

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte

    Another one of these 19th century "classics". I read somewhere that Charlotte Bronte considered Jane Austen to be somewhat lightweight as a writer. Well. This book starts off in the style of Dickens, describing the unfortunate fate of someone at the lower end of the English caste system of the 19th century, living in overly close proximity with snooty people belonging to the moneyed caste more toward the upper end of the spectrum. But in the end, the book turns out to be a gushingly unrealistic romance, involving the heroine, Jane Eyre, transporting herself hundreds of miles into the north of England, being dumped out of the coach for lack of money, stumbling around half dead in a rainstorm and then falling for mercy on the doorstep of a randomly chosen house - one of millions - at a random point within the English landmass.
    What a coincidence! It just happens to be the house occupied by her long-lost cousins! But neither she, nor they, realize this. And furthermore, the coincidence is increased by the circumstance that the long-lost uncle happens to die somewhere overseas, just at that point. A letter from the solicitor reaches the cousins, and this reveals everybody's true identities, and the fact that poor Jane Eyre has inherited 20,000 pounds. So she splits it with her three cousins equally, leaving her with 5,000, and she then returns to her true love, who has lots more than 20,000 pounds in his possession anyway, and they live happily ever after. This is just a thumbnail sketch of the plot, leaving out lots of details which anyone who might, by some obscure chance, read this can look up for themself in the  Wikipedia entry which I have given here as a link. Or you can even read the book, if you really like reading this sort of stuff.
    Well, of course there is much more to the book than this. I have to admit that throughout large sequences, it was quite a good read. It's really about the problem of marriage. If you are married to one person, then you are not allowed to be married to another. Even in modern society, this is declared to be illegal. Therefore, most young people today avoid marriage. Just get on with things without all these heavy 19th century encumbrances. Just do it. Forget marriage. The daughter of a friend is a judge in the German judicial system, and she has recently had a child. In my ignorance (perhaps stemming from my reading such literature as this), I said that at least she, as a legal person, would know the advantages of the married state. But no! As a legally well-versed person, she knows that it is a dis-advantage, from the legal point of view, to be married in this situation these days.
    So there you are! The world has changed for the better, and all these romantic dramas involving legalistic problems with marriage contracts no longer exist. Or do they? Even now we read of rustic Turkish families who force their daughters into arranged marriages at gunpoint. And if they don't obey, then their brothers are honor-bound to actually pull the trigger! How dreadful!
    But on the other hand, I am really all for marriage. I think it's great. I feel sorry for those people who drift aimlessly through life, alone, unattached. I suppose the problem is if one becomes married and then realizes that it is no good. This is the subject of this book. If you come from some brutal, rustic society, then this all ends in murder. And that is essentially what happens in this book. A more civilized solution - but one which the catholic church appears still incapable of embracing - is divorce. England in the 19th century belonged, apparently, more to the brutal, rustic category of society. The victim is the poor woman, Bertha Mason, who is described by Charlotte Bronte in extremely unsympathetic terms.
    Years ago I read another book, Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, which was a kind of sequel to this one. Or rather the opposite of that. It describes Bertha Mason's life in Jamaica before all the mess started which was described in Charlotte Bronte's story. It is a shorter book. Not so "heavy". In her version, Bertha's real name was Antoinette, which is a more likely name for the daughter of a Creole inhabitant of the Caribbean. Then, according to Jean Rhys, Mr. Rochester, in his overbearing, dominant way, decided to call her Bertha - a more Germanic, rude name for a woman. (Somehow the name Bertha has gone out of fashion, perhaps owing to this book, but certainly also because the high-tech German cannon of WW1, which was capable of lobbing cannon shells from the lines in Belgium over to Paris, was called "Big Bertha".)
    According to the Introduction to Jane Eyre in the edition which I read, it was said that G.H. Lewes met Charlotte Bronte at a London dinner party, and he accused her of writing a "naughty book". That dismayed her. The first thought is to pooh-pooh such false Victorian morality. But no. I agree with him. This is very definitely a naughty book! It is naughty to torment, and then kill off an unwanted wife, as Mr. Rochester essentially did, in order to get rid of her and free the way to marry someone else. (Although Bertha committed suicide by jumping from a burning building, that was the only way out of the situation which Rochester had put her in.)
    For me, this book left an unpleasant, yes - naughty - taste. Wide Sargasso Sea gives a wider, clearer vision of the source of the evil which is described in this book.
    As a final thought, I found it interesting that Charlotte Bronte, writing in 1847, portrayed her heroine's work as a school mistress for bucolic female children in a very positive light. This was the age of "progress", and it was thought that even farmer's daughters should progress out of the farmyard and into the light of the modern world of the future! What a change from earlier ideas! I'm sure that if she had published the book a generation or two earlier than 1847, then it would have been banned, and she would have faced criminal proceedings for encouraging people to get ideas beyond their station; stir up trouble; even become terrorists! I wonder if we in the modern world are now progressing back into a society where again the lower orders will be kept in their places?

Our Lady of the Forest, by David Guterson

    The link I've given here is to a "Website for Christian Readers". Thus this links us into the rather horrifying fact that the subject of this book has much to do with the true reality of human experience, at least as it is presently experienced in the United States!
     This is a very gloomy book indeed. And reading it as I have on a few gray, drizzly, gloomy November days in Middle Europe makes it even more so. What a change from the more light-hearted, optimistic outlook of Snow Falling on Cedars! Is it true that things have degenerated so much in the U.S.A. between the time-frames of these two stories? Or is it only the common illusion that things were better in earlier times?
    The action in the present book takes place in the cold rain forests of Oregon, more or less in the present day - that is in 1999. A poor, disoriented young girl, Ann, runs away from her broken home, where she has been subjected to a never-ending sequence of rapes by her sadistic, young step-father. The degenerate mother is incapable of helping her, or of even knowing about what is going on with her daughter. Ann ends up camping under a plastic sheet in a camping ground in the rain forest, surrounded by other disoriented, hopeless inhabitants of modern-day America, whose accommodation ranges from Ann's plastic sheet, up to the somewhat sleazy mobile home of the local catholic priest. She exists by searching for mushrooms in the forest, then selling them to a mushroom dealer in town.
    When not searching for mushrooms in the mists of the forest, she passes the time with another mushroom searcher, Carolyn, a rather over-educated, hippy-like woman of 30. They smoke quantities of cannabis, and eat "magic" mushrooms, thus allowing them to drift out of the sordid world of present experience and into the psychedelic world of dreams. Ann suffers from asthma as well, and so she takes additional quantities of "legal" drugs, thus decreasing her presence in the real world even further, and increasing her presence in the world of psychedelic visions. The result is that she gets into communication with the Virgin Mary out in the rain forest. Word of this miracle quickly spreads via modern communications technology to the eager masses of people seeking salvation and the healing of their various ills. Suddenly thousands of disoriented, or at least curious, people descend on the nearby camping grounds and motels and follow her out in the drizzle each day to experience her visions at second hand. After a dramatic turn of events at the end of the book, the catholic church accepts - reluctantly - the validity of these visions, and erects a nice new church in the forest. This is a satisfactory solution all around, since - owing to the evil influence of the Sierra Club, and its ilk (see the book by Michael Crichton, above!) - the lumber industry, which had earlier been prosperous, had now fallen into decline, leading to a depression in economic activity in the forest. But the Church of Our Lady of the Forest now becomes a great tourist attraction, ensuring the future well-being of the town.
    I'm afraid that my limited range of experiences precludes any very deep analysis of these subjects. I did have a few puffs of cannabis back then in the 1970s and found it to be pleasant. But then a single, somewhat heavier dosage of hashish led to a very unpleasant, disoriented feeling, which put me off all further experimentation in these directions. I find that a glass or two of wine is much more satisfying. Just recently, I have read that here in Germany, and also in England, people have taken samples of river water and examined them for trace elements. By this method, we can extrapolate the contents of the various bodily discharges of all the millions of people living in these countries. And it turns out that an immense amount of cocaine must be consumed by the population at large. Tons and tons of it. Enough to fill cargo ships to overflowing!
    So there you are. Once again I must conclude that the world I appear to be living in is totally different from the world which most other people seem to experience.
    Perhaps the most interesting character in the book is Tom Cross. He imagines that he himself is the Devil. At first, like most of the other characters, he is obsessed with sex. In the period before the story takes place - before the Sierra Club ruined things - he worked hard chopping down trees. Also shooting any animals getting in his way. But his small son, Tom Junior, doesn't like these things. Junior is more fitted to the modern world, with its computers and other indoor amusements. Thus Tom Senior hates Tom Junior. He forces his son to help him in his wood-cutting business. This culminated in a nasty scene in which Tom Senior works himself up into a dreadful screaming fit, and then sees to it that a big tree falls on Junior, to kill him. But Junior survives in a pathetic, paralyzed state. Like a vegetable. Even his breathing is only possible with a tube through the chest, attached to a loud air pump. Yet his mind is not injured. He lives on in this living hell. Tom Senior compares his situation to that of the wrathful God of the Bible, who sends his Son, Jesus Christ, into the world, only to crucify him on the Cross. Yet, whereas God's Son - who had the luck to be born in the days before the advent of modern medicine - only suffered for a day or two, his son, whom he had similarly smitten, had to suffer this never-ending crucification. The book has many similar meditations on such theological themes.
    It is true that the catholic church occasionally embraces such events. I'm not really familiar with such things. The famous ones seem to be the Fatima business in Portugal in 1917, and at Lourdes in the 19th century. I understand that they have also done much to promote tourism at those places. Fair enough. I used to think that the earlier pantheon of gods in the ancient world - or the natural beings of the dream world of ancient Australia - would be preferable to the monotheistic religions which have largely replaced them. But now I accept the more dignified traditions of the great churches, with their wonderful music. This is something to inspire us. Feelings which transcend the psychedelic visions of the local saints.

The Moon and Sixpence, by W. Somerset Maugham

    What can one write about a book which describes one of its characters as, "a man who had faced undaunted hurricane and typhoon, and would not have hesitated to fight a dozen unarmed niggers with nothing but a revolver to help him"? Would that be an act of bravery, or of cowardice? Conversly, how many unarmed Europeans would it take to summon enough collective courage to allow six of their members to die in order to overcome a single African with a revolver? (I assume the revolver would be a six-shooter.) Is this what the "sixpence" in the title refers to? There seemed to be no other particular references in this book to six of a thing, as far as I could see.
    Or how about the female owner of a hotel at Papeete on Tahiti, whose name was Tiara, and who told the narrator that her first husband regularly got drunk and then physically beat her, and so she loved him for it. Then her second husband was a tolerant, open-minded and peaceful man who left her free to do whatever she wished. For this she despised him! This detail simply serves to amplify the sordid little story in the middle of the book, involving the "hero", Charles Strickland, and his degenerate life in Paris.
    And again, in the final scene of the book, where the narrator is visiting the aged wife of the hero, and her two grown-up children unexpectedly emerge from an adjoining room. The daughter has married a soldier of some sort, and the son is not himself a soldier, but rather he is a military priest. The scene takes place in the middle of World War I, but remember that this novel was published in 1919, after the end of WWI. So the son, the military priest, describes his life during the war in the following terms: "Well, I don't mind confessing it, I have a rattling good time at the front. I've made a lot of good pals. It's a first-rate life. Of course war's terrible, and all that sort of thing; but it does bring out the best qualities in a man, there's no denying that."
    What is all this? Is it humor? Or should we just say that W. Somerset Maugham's attitudes to things were typical for the men of those times? Somehow this last explanation seems to me to be unsatisfactory. After all, there were any number of novelists from that period who wrote books which contained none of this revolting kind of cynicism. So was W. Somerset Maugham simply a man with a dirty mind?
    Perhaps I'm just not approaching this book with an open mind. It is supposed to be based on the life of Paul Gauguin. Here is a link where you can look at some of his pictures. I think Gauguin painted lots of very good pictures. For me there's more life in them than in Van Gogh's pictures, for example. The link also gives a short biography of Gauguin. He was not the animal-like monster which Maugham saw fit to make of him. No. His pictures, unlike those of Maugham's hero, are not simply chaotic jumbles of color. I think Gauguin's pictures convey more a feeling of calm serenity. He painted a dignified portrait of his wife Mette. But the picture conveys the feeling that he must have had in that phase of his life; that being a successful bank manager was not the life he was fated to live.
    Somehow, novels which attempt to deal with painting always seem to suffer the same fate as novels which attempt to deal with music. They just don't work. Words can't convey the visual impressions of a painting, or the emotional impressions of music. Maugham's attempt to equate Gauguin's style with some sort of crude, Darwinian, proto-Nazi, struggle for survival seems to me to be nothing more than nonsense.

Dusklands, by J.M. Coetzee

    This was Coetzee's first book. If you thought that Disgrace was rather rough, even brutal, then don't read this one! It's much worse. It is a short book, consisting of two parts which are separate stories in themselves. At first we don't see that there is any connection, except that in both stories, a character called Coetzee plays a major role. But in both cases, this Coetzee character is not the Author.
    The first part is called "The Vietnam Project". It describes the situation of a character called Eugene Dawn, who is working in an American "Think Tank", trying to think about how to win the war in Vietnam. His boss is called Coetzee. This Coetzee is an expert in "game theory". The game of killing people in Vietnam, according to game theory, has as its basic premise the idea that each individual human being has his or her own "self interest". That is to say, the driving force behind the actions of each individual is given by the interest the self has in the given action. The self only serves to define to whom the individual action in the game happens to apply. Dawn, on the other hand, realizes that all this game theory nonsense is totally irrelevant. In reality, each individual is driven by a set of defining myths. Dawn is an expert on mythography. The American Pilot, flying a plane high in the sky, dropping bombs of death onto the Vietnamese, is the "father". Perhaps even the Father in Heaven. The innocent people on the ground are the "children", who are being punished by the "father". But what are they being punished for? This is the question which must confound the "children" so that the "father" can be seen to establish his dominance. Dawn develops a strategy for winning the war based on the idea that the punishment of the "children" by the "father" must be totally random. It should be impossible for the "children" to find any pattern or system of morality behind the killings. While developing his theory, Dawn is haunted by photographs of various torture scenes which he has at his disposal. Thus he exists vicariously in Vietnam. And he saves himself from ever being in Vietnam in reality. But his marriage disintegrates and eventually he finds himself camping in a motel somewhere in the woods, or the mountains, with his small son. The police come to get him; he loses his mind and stabs his son in the back; then the story ends in a lunatic asylum where he tries to help the doctors understand the mythography of his mental illness.
    The second part describes the adventure of Jakobus Coetzee in the year 1760. He sets out from his South African farm into the wilds to the North - the Velt - with six of his slaves with the object of killing Elephants for their ivory. Clicking around for a couple of minutes in the internet, I see that there are, and were, many Coetzee's in South Africa, and maybe this Jakobus Coetzee was a true historical figure who actually was an ancestor of the Author. Coetzee reaches territory which is beyond the scope of previous Dutch advances. It is inhabited by people who speak the "Hottentot" language of his slaves. He gets sick and is cared for by his favorite slave. The others prefer their new "wild" companions to Coetzee, the slave-owner. He recovers from his sickness, finds that nobody is impressed by his superior existence as a civilized Dutch settler and slave-owner, and after some rather ugly incidents, is driven from the tribe. (All of this action is described in graphic, disgusting detail.) He returns southwards with only his favorite slave, who, of course, must carry everything, and so on. The favorite slave in turn gets sick. Coetzee sees no reason why he should care for him. He returns to civilization, organizes a military expedition, retraces his earlier journey, and then kills off the entire tribe, and especially he enjoys personally killing his disobedient slaves. All this is described in the style of the Mi Lai massacre of Vietnam.
    All of this is horrible. But horrible things are going on in the world! Could the Vietnamese be equated with the "Hottentots", whose existence Coetzee found to be only of interest in that he was able to kill them and thus assert his own existence in the world? Did the Americans, in their collective Myth, see the Vietnamese as being simply wild, animal-like beings, who should be exterminated along with their jungles, which were sprayed away with Agent Orange?
    Thankfully, I had nothing to do with that whole Vietnam mess. But I can understand the idea that at that time, the world was divided into the two opposing systems: Communism and Capitalism. I think that the basic Myth was that the Good Americans were Saving the World by spraying weed-killers on all of that communism.
    And so here we are in the year 2005. What are the Americans doing in Iraq? The good thing about reading a book like this is that it soon comes to an end and one can read something lighter. The bad thing about reality is that we do not know when this nightmare will come to an end.

Finding the Centre, by J.S. Naipaul

    Although Naipaul, like Coetzee, won the Nobel Prize for literature, (according to the link which I've given here) hardly knows whether this book exists at all! I took the copy from our library, which has a complete collection of Naipaul's works.
     Like the previous book, this is short, and it consists of two parts which don't have all that much to do with one another. But unlike the previous book, it is not horrible. It is fact, not fiction. The first part describes Naipaul's early beginnings as a writer. He goes back to Trinidad and talks to various relatives. We learn that A House for Mr. Biswas was itself more fact than fiction. Naipaul's father was an interesting man, often placed in difficult situations by his position as a newspaper reporter for the Trinidad Guardian. He wasn't angry with his son for portraying him in such a bad light in the character of Mr. Biswas. Thus he must have been a man of good character, and I almost wished that Naipaul, the Nobel Prize winner, had expressed some remorse about immortalizing his father in such a way. But no. He is at pains in this story to show the failings of his family and all of the things in Trinidad which he knew as a child. Although the volume which I took out of the library was published as recently as 1984, with nicely sewn bindings in hard-cover by Andre Deutsch, the pages are already beginning to yellow badly. The paper is not of high quality. And so this gave me the feeling that Naipaul was trying to say that his own background in Trinidad was also not of particularly high quality.
    The second part describes his visit to the Ivory Coast. Naipaul says that the only real reason he put the two stories together is that his trips to Trinidad, and then to the Ivory Coast, came soon after one another, in 1982 or so. His impressions of Africa are very interesting. He has many fascinating thoughts. It was a bit like that book by Ryszard Kapuscinski which has been translated into English as The Shadow of the Sun. (That was really a great book!) As with Kapuscinski, Naipaul finds that life runs much deeper than we had thought in Africa. The Africans think that we Europeans are rather childish, since we are so fascinated by the world of immediate physical experiences. The world of the day. Our minds are closed to the world of the spirits of the night. Different people tell Naipaul that the city of Abidjan is a dream, an illusion which is there for the fleeting present. He is fascinated by the artificial city of Yamoussoukro. Pope John Paul the Second, who is also reputed to have been as much an inhabitant of the spiritual, as of the physical world, came to Yamoussoukro to open the largest catholic church in the world - larger even than his place in Rome! But this was somewhat after the time of Naipaul's visit. Naipaul was fascinated by the meaning of the ceremony of the feeding of live chickens to the crocodiles in the moat surrounding the Presidential Palace. He talks to people who tell him about the facts of life out there in the jungle, even in this modern day and age. For an important man in the realms of jungle life, it is considered to be an honor to have his feet bathed in blood. Usually an animal is sacrificed for this purpose. But Naipaul learns that the greatest honor is accorded when the feet are bathed in the blood of a human child. Afterwards, the sacrifice is then eaten. He is told that the price of such a sacrifice is 20 pounds (I suppose that would be about 50 euros in todays money). When an important man dies, all people around him panic and try to flee. For, as in ancient Egypt, his wives and servants are killed in order to accompany him on his journey through the spirit world.

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Odaudah Equiano

    The reason I got onto this one is that a week or two ago, I read a review of a biography of Equiano by some professor of history, in the Guardian. It was said that the professor had established that the first part of Equiano's Narrative must be false, since convincing documentation had been found to prove that he was actually born a slave in South Carolina. Thus Equiano's description of his birth in Africa, kidnapping, and transportation on a slave ship to America was an invention. The review said that other professors of African studies would be unhappy with this, since Equiano's book is very central to their subject. On the other hand, the biography did find abundant documentation to support all of the later episodes described by Equiano.
    Be that as it may, this is certainly a very powerful book! It was first published in 1789 in London. His main motivation for writing the book was to convince parliament, and the public, that slavery should be abolished. Unfortunately he died in 1797, and thus he did not live to see the "Abolition of the Slave Trade Act", which passed parliament in 1807, and was the supreme consequence of this book.
    The first two chapters, describing his birthplace in Africa, and so forth, are rather vague. There are no very precise childhood memories here. It certainly is plausable that he is just describing things which he had heard from other slaves in America. On the other hand, he says that he was kidnapped when he was very young, only 8 or 9 years old, so it would be understandable that his memories were vague. So I suppose Mungo Park's Travels in the Interior of Africa remain our primary source for understanding life in West Africa at that time.
     Equiano was sold to an English sailing captain when he was still a small child. He sailed on ships of the British Navy fighting against the French. He thought of his master as being almost like his father, and so he was very devoted to him. Others in the ship told him that his naval service entitled him to freedom, and this was apparently the true law of England at that time, but as all the other sailors were rejoicing at their return to England, Equiano's master - whom he thought he loved - suddenly grabbed him, thrust him into a small boat, and sold him to the captain of a ship lying in the Thames which set sail for the West Indies! Upon arrival at Montserrat, he was sold to a quaker, who was a businessman, trading in various things, including slaves. But the quaker was an honorable man - at least as far as that was possible in such a place. Equiano worked as a first mate on ships of his master, and got along well with the other sailors. Eventually he was able to earn enough money (40 pounds) through private trading - which was allowed him - to purchase his own freedom, and he emerged as a free man.
    When we think of the West Indies today, we think of expensive, all-inclusive holidays for a week or two, jetting down to a 5-star hotel and relaxing on the soft sands of the Caribbean, admiring the azure blue water and the gently swaying palm trees. This is our vision of Paradise. In fact, even Columbus believed that he had discovered Paradise when he discovered the Caribbean. His theory was that the Earth is rather egg-shaped (or, in his flowery mind, like a bosom), and when sailing to the West Indies, one sails somewhat upwards, nearer towards Heaven.
    Well, for the slaves transported from Africa, reality was totally different! (In fact there is a little place called "Hell", where you can have a letter stamped as being "from Hell", on Grand Cayman Island, which I visited in 1965.) But there is no place for humor here. The West Indies was a true, living hell for all Africans at that time. Equiano also had to travel to Savanna Georgia in his master's ship from time to time. That was also an equal, or even worse hell! Africans had no rights at all. Even when he was free, on many occasions, ruthless whites simply tried to take him and throw him into slavery again. He was only able to escape by the virtue of his command of the English language. He describes many of the tortures which were commonly applied to slaves. Whipping was the least of them. Reading these things is quite sickening. He often says that he does not want to burden the reader with too much depressing detail, so these descriptions are usually just passing remarks. One scene remains in my mind, of a cruel overseer, whipping the cringing slaves in his fields who are all half-castes. In fact they are all the very children of the overseer, who has procreated these poor people by continuously raping the original female slaves which had been brought from Africa! Is it far-fetched to see the continuation of this horrible, disgusting tradition of the archipelago of torture islands in the West Indies in some of the present-day practices which we are forced to read about in the daily news?
    In any case, all of these experiences caused Equiano to become quite religious, and he describes his thoughts - struggles - with religion in great detail. He had the opportunity of staying in Spain and studying to become a catholic priest, but he rejects this path since he is convinced of the truth of the teachings of the Church of England. His travels as a sailor take him to Turkey, where he finds that he is an equal and respected member of society. Perhaps it is unfortunate that his religion drove him to remain in England, rather than settling peacefully into the more pleasant atmosphere of Turkey.
    His life aboard the sailing ships of those days caused him much anguish, owing to the fact that sailors tend to constantly utter blasphemies. He subscribed to the theory that sinners would suffer eternal tortures in the afterlife. Thus, at first, he attempted to reduce the extent of his sins. He imagines that although he does violate, to some extent the "ten commandments", at least he has about eight and a half of them. This would give him an 85% chance of avoiding tortures in the afterlife, or so. (Am I the only person here who has bothered to read that part of the Bible? Where are the ten commandments? For those who are even more unfamiliar with these texts than I am, I can tell you that in the English version of the Bible, it all starts in Chapter 20 of the Book of Exodus. In that chapter alone, Moses gives us substantially more than 10 commandments. Then it continues on through into Chapter 23. Many of these commandments deal with rules for the treatment of slaves. For example, 21.20-21 reads "And if a man smite his servant (note: at least Luther translated this word more faithfully as "slave"), or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for it is his money!")
    In any case, in the middle of his anxiety about the afterlife, Equiano is astonished to meet someone who is unafraid of death, since he knows that he will simply go to heaven and thus escape torture. How can he know this? Only gradually is the answer revealed. It is that the world is full of sin anyway, you can't avoid it, so just do it, but if you believe in Christ, then everything will be OK. This is the English religion which he embraced. A sublime philosophy for those troubled souls who spend their lives torturing slaves! Perhaps the Spanish and the Portuguese at that time were more sensible, since it was a very serious crime in those countries - involving extremely drastic and horrible punishments - to possess, or worse, even to read, a Bible!

The Blackwater Lightship, by Colm Tóibín

    So I have finally found out how to write an accent aigu (in fact two of them) with this keyboard. Not only the Author has a quirky Irish name. Many of the characters in this book do too! The main character, who narrates it all, is sensibly named Helen. But her brother, who is overcome with AIDS, is called Declan. And Helen's two children are Cathal and Manus. (Manus sounds like a man's name, but Cathal is also a boy.)
    But this is a really great book. The language is beautiful. And one really gets into the characters and lives through the story alongside them. According to the review in The Independent, which is reproduced inside the front cover of the paperback edition which I read, the book - and its title - is reminiscent of To the Lighthouse. It is true that the first chapter starts off with a very introspective Helen, in the style of Virginia Woolf. She is enduring a large-scale musical get-together in her house, organized by her husband Hugh, who, despite his non-quirky English name, seems on this occasion to be a rather fanatical Irish nationalist. I'm sure it was his idea to give the children names like that. Many strangers come, all bringing six-packs of Guinness, together with bottles of Irish whiskey and various musical instruments. As the evening progresses, the various strangers turn out to be famous Irish nationalist musicians. We learn once again that music is not always fun and games! It is often used as an expression of aggressive emotions. Helen feels menaced, owing to the fact that she can hardly understand the "Irish language" - that's Gaelic, isn't it? Other people at the party are also trying to keep a low profile, since they haven't bothered with all this Gaelic either. Helen tries to avoid them and she pretends that she does understand Gaelic. Whew! It seemed as if this was going to be another one of those heavy, violent books. But no!
    Despite her non-Irish name, and lack of Gaelic, it turns out that Helen is also Irish. She just couldn't be bothered to waste time learning such nonsense at school. And sensibly, she is now a school teacher, and in fact she is the head-mistress of a school in Dublin which is doing so well that the Minister of Education invites her to a nice get-together, to congratulate her on her work. This projects us into the real story of the book.
    Suddenly she gets a call from Paul, whoever he is, who tells her that her brother Declan is very sick, and she should go to him at the hospital immediately. She is shocked to learn that he is homosexual, and is dying of AIDS. So she takes him to the grandmother's house at the sea, near to where the Blackwater Lightship used to be, and they are joined by Larry, who is also homosexual, and Helen's mother, Lily. All these people have sensible names. Yet Helen hasn't seen, or spoken with her mother for many years. We learn about all of their lives. Larry and Paul are also great characters. This really is a beautifully written book. Absolutely to be recommended! I'll have to read some of the other books this Tóibín has written.
     The characters spend lots of time sitting around in the kitchen talking to one another. They are continually sitting next to the "aga". In fact, I think even at the aggressive, Gaelic musical party at her place, Helen also sits down, or at least stands, next to the "aga" which she has. What is an "aga"? As a matter of fact, I had encountered this word before reading this book! It is not some obscure object of Irish folklore. No. Our local newspaper includes, every Friday, a TV-guide, which has about ten pages at the front, in the style of a women's magazine, informing the eager readers about the details of the exciting lifestyles of the world's kings and queens and movie stars. And according to the TV-guide, many Hollywood stars, and also Queen Elizabeth II of England, have agas. An aga is an extremely expensive cast iron stove, built according to the design of a Swedish engineer in the 1920's. Here is the link to the aga company's Internet presence. For example Dustin Hoffman is supposed to have one of them. It creates the illusion of being in grandma's ol' hometown kitchen, yet, unlike grandma's old stove which was simple (since she couldn't afford anything better), if you have an aga, then you know that you are on a par with the Queen of England! Can it be that the Irish, despite their Gaelic, are now so rich that they can all afford agas? Perhaps so.
     And then, of course, it is difficult for me to read about AIDS without thinking about what Kary Mullis wrote on the subject. He is the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in the year 1993 for his discovery of the polymerize chain-reaction, which is the basis of the so-called "AIDS test". He maintains that AIDS is in the first instance due to poisoning by the drugs which the more promiscuous homosexuals commonly take. Helen's brother Declan was promiscuous. In contrast, Paul and Larry lead more steady lives, without all these drugs, so they are healthy. According to Mullis, once the doctors diagnose AIDS, the poor patient is then quickly killed off with really potent drugs, such as AZT. This was Declan's fate. Thank goodness that in more recent times, doctors have seen fit to reduce the dosage of these poisons drugs somewhat, thus allowing those members of society who are deemed to have the stigma of AIDS a longer period of survival. Therefore we see that, in contrast to the dire warnings of twenty years ago, when it was said that half of the population of the world - and almost all of Africa - would be dead of AIDS by now, the happy reality is that AIDS itself seems to be dying out. (In fact, if you look at any sensible statistics of African population, you will see that the population explosion, unfortunately, is still continuing.) In any case, whatever the true situation is with respect to the cause of AIDS, the reality was that it was horrible for people like Declan who had to suffer through it.