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(2006)

Colm Tóibín:
     The Master
Judy & Tashi Tensing:
     Tensing and the Sherpas of Everest
L. Frank Baum:
     The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Gregory Maguire:
     Wicked
Wilfred Thesiger:
     Arabian Sands
Robert Solé, Dominique Valbelle and W.V. Davies:
     The Rosetta Stone
Jean Rhys:
     Sleep it Off Lady
O.R. Gurney:
     The Hittites
Ann Patchett:
     Bel Canto
J.M. Cook:
     The Persians
Nigel Davies:
     The Incas
Norman Hammond:
     The Maya
Jean Rhys:
     Voyage in the Dark
Frank Schätzing:
     Der Schwarm
Nigel Davies:
     The Aztecs
Anne Brontë:
     Agnes Grey
Charlotte Brontë:
     The Professor
Anita Desai:
    
Clear Light of Day
Raymond Chandler:
     Trouble is my Business
Robert Louis Stevenson:
     The Master of Ballantrae
Jared Diamond:
     Collapse
Colin Higgins:
     Harold and Maude
Reinhold Messner:
     Mount Everest: Expeditionen zum Endpunkt
Thomas Cochrane:
     Memoirs of a Fighting Captain
Sarah Waters:
     The Night Watch
Kenneth Cook:
     Wake in Fright
Tracy Chevalier:
     The Lady and the Unicorn
Philip Roth:
     The Plot Against America
Haruki Murakami:
     Kafka on the Shore
Timothy Hemion:
     Inspector Morimoto and the Japanese Cranes
Kiran Desai:
     The Inheritance of Loss
Zadie Smith:
     On Beauty
David Mitchell:
     Cloud Atlas


The Master, by Colm Tóibín

    This book is totally different from Tóibín's earlier book The Blackwater Lightship, which I just read at the end of last year, before getting onto this one. It is dignified, elegant, almost ponderous in style, imitating the style of Henry James, whose more-or-less fictional biography it is.
    I have already gone on too much about my problems with Henry James in earlier reviews. But despite the ponderous nature of this book - something which was necessary in order to do its subject justice - I found it to be much more enjoyable than Henry James' own writings. Tóibín has obviously done much research on his subject, and so I was constantly looking up the sketches of the various characters which make their appearances in the book, in wikipedia, or whatever. In fact Tóibín writes in his short "Acknowledgments" at the end of the book that he "has peppered the text with phrases and sentences from the writings of Henry James and his family". Given this, I was particularly interested in the (perhaps imagined) criticism which his brother William - a real-life Harvard professor - had for Henry's writings during a stay at Henry's house in Rye. William says: "I believe that your style has suffered from the strain of constantly dramatizing social insipidity. I think also that something cold and thin-blooded and oddly priggish has come to the fore in your content." How true!
    Yet reading Tóibín's book gives us (at least those of us who have not read all the countless biographies, volumes of letters, and what have you) a clearer view of what Henry James was all about. To begin with, James was homosexual, but extremely celibate. This lead to a life of loneliness and unfulfilled longings. Perhaps longings which he was unable to acknowledge even to himself. An amusing scene in the book describes an episode when he was a young man, visiting cousins for the summer. He had been a mama's boy, pretending to be sick in order to avoid doing anything in particular other than lying in bed, reading. So he had avoided the American Civil War. Yet he admired the various manly heroes which that war had produced. For example, the family friend Oliver Wendell Holmes - who had become a war hero. The scene is that they arrive at the cousin's place in New England, but for the first night there is only one room with a single bed for both men. Oliver Wendell Holmes takes off all his clothes and stands naked in his heroic manhood before climbing into bed. A trembling Henry James then climbs in after him, spending sleepless hours, afraid of the slightest movement throughout the night. The next day, they go to the female cousins and admire all of their fine womanly qualities. And so I imagine Henry James went on and on through life like this, approaching people, making countless friends, yet turning away from them to seek loneliness and to write complicated, involved stories of all these people, coldly observing their qualities. Such are the books of Henry James.
    Tóibín also shows that Henry's brother William, the Harvard professor, (and also Henry himself) believed deeply in the reality of ghosts, of clairvoyance, of personal visitations by the Devil. So that book which we read last year, The Turn of the Screw, can be understood - incredible as it seems - as a true statement of the religious beliefs of the author Henry James!
    In any case, much of James' writings revolve around the theme of Americans (that is, people from the U.S.A.) visiting "Ye Olde Europe" and experiencing one thing or another here. These Americans are characters from James' own New England background. They come from extremely rich families, living spaciously in Newport. Yet all of their wealth leads simply to loneliness, to Weltschmerz. James' friend, the American novelist Constance Woolson (wikipedia still has no article on her life; other on-line encyclopedias say that her writing is so outdated as to be almost unreadable these days) is driven to suicide by Henry's constant approaches, and then retreats, from her emotional neighborhood. Her last days are spent in Venice. According to Tóibín's story, Constance has, with all her American wealth, retained her own personal gondolier, in oder to row her out away from Venice, into the Lagoon. But also to constantly take her to the parties of the other members of the American "colony" in Venice. After her death, Henry surreptitiously goes through her papers in order to burn anything which might embarrass him. But then he disposes of the dead Constance's clothes with the aid of the gondolier, who is portrayed as being totally grief-stricken, almost as if it were his own mother who had died. Surely Tóibín has taken all this poignant loneliness too far at this point! In reality, any Venetian gondolier, either today, or 100 years ago, has at most a tolerant contempt for these arrogant American tourists.

Tensing and the Sherpas of Everest, by Judy and Tashi Tensing

    Tashi Tensing is the son of Pem Pem, who is the daughter of Tensing Norgay, who, together with Sir Edmund Hillary, was the first person to climb Mt. Everest to the top. Tashi himself has also climbed it. His wife is Judy, who was also a mountain climber and leader of trekking expeditions in the Himalayas. She is Australian, and so they now live in Sydney where they have a travel agency for trekking tours.
    Actually, I didn't read the original version of the book, which was published in Australia. Rather I read a German translation which I had received for Christmas. It has the title Im Schatten des Everest: Die Geschichte der Sherpa. Why do translators, or at least the publishers of translated books, so often find it necessary to change the title to such an extent that it no longer describes what it is to any sensible extent? One sees this with movies too. Often a movie has a very simple and fitting title, yet the translated version ends up with a complicated title which doesn't fit the movie at all! Anyway, this book mainly describes what has been going on in the Solu Khumbu region of Nepal, which is on the South side of Mt. Everest, and thus not in its shadow. Furthermore, it is concerned primarily with the great Tensing Norgay, his relatives, and short descriptions of other famous Sherpa mountain climbers. It is not concerned with a general history of the Sherpa peoples of the Himalaya. So I hope that the publishers - Frederking & Thaler - have only managed to garble the title of the book, leaving a cleaner translation of the actual text.
    But this is really a most interesting book. There is a Foreword by the Dalai Lama, and also another one by Sir Edmund Hillary. Also it has many photos which one can study to see the characters of the people being described. It is different from most books of this genre in that it describes things from the perspective of the Sherpa.
    One interesting point is that Tensing Norgay was born in Tibet, but then his family migrated to Nepal, and then in later life he settled in Darjeeling. But why did his family leave Tibet? When listening to the Dalai Lama, one gains the impression that in earlier times (before the Chinese invasion), Tibet was an earthly paradise. It was "Shangri La" - heaven. Why would anyone possibly want to leave these heavenly realms to migrate out of the shade of Everest and into the more earthy regions of Nepal and India? This book provides an answer to this seemingly paradoxical question.
    The answer is that the Dalai Lama has been misleading us to some extent!! Tibet was, in fact, not a pure "heaven upon earth" in the old days. No! In reality, the common people were living in the condition of serfs - or slaves - under a few feudal landowners. And, according to this book, common punishments included not only whippings, but also being chained naked outside in freezing weather until the victim died, or also being buried alive with only the head protruding from the ground for days on end. So the Tensing family escaped from this personal hell of Tibet into the more peaceful regions of Solu Khumbu - just avoiding the pack of hunters sent to kill them. But of course these memories of a violent and oppressive Tibet were only included in the book since they are a part of the biography of Tensing Norgay.
    He certainly must have been an extraordinary climber with almost superhuman energy. He most enjoyed the Swiss expeditions, culminating in the climb of 1952, where he, together with his wonderful friend Raymond Lambert were only just defeated at 8613 meters by the storms which have cost so many lives at these altitudes. But Lambert remained a great friend of Tensing. The Swiss, who are also people of the mountains, considered the Sherpas to be as their brothers. This was different from the attitude of the British who still expected the natives to call them sahib. But then, after his historic climb with Sir Edmund Hillary, the leading figures of that climb also embraced Tensing as one of them, and 30 years later, when Hillary became New Zealand's High Commissioner to India, they became close personal friends. (Of course Sir Edmund Hillary has distinguished himself with his projects for the advancement of the Sherpa, over many years.)
    The book is really very well worth reading. It also shows the nature of the "zone of death" in the regions above 8000 meters. Even today, if you are prepared to fork out 75,000 American dollars for the Nepalese climbing tax, and further tens of thousands for equipment, hiring of Sherpas, etc., you are still quite likely to die at the top. Don't sit down to take a rest! Even while "resting", the body continues to run down in the direction of death, just somewhat more slowly. Apparently, if you are successful then you will have had the pleasure not only of spending huge amounts of money, but also you will have had the interesting experience of stepping over numbers of frozen corpses of less successful mountain climbers which continue to litter the top of Mt. Everest!
    So this shows how magnificent was the achievement of Reinhold Messner (whose name is only mentioned once in this book, in a list of ten other names or so). Not only has Messner climbed to the top of all the 8000 meter mountains in the world (including Nanga Parbat - the "mountain of death"), but he did it all without oxygen bottles, and he climbed Everest totally alone, from bottom to top in one go, without any helpers at all! Perhaps only Babu Chhiri Sherpa, whose achievements are described in this book, could be considered to be Messner's equal as a high-altitude mountain climber.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum

    The reason I read this one is that our next book is Wicked, which seems to be based on the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a book which I had certainly never read before. So now I have read this Gutenberg etext edition (which is pleasantly formated in html). I had vaguely placed this Oz business somewhere around Babur the Elephant, and other such half-remembered children's books from the 1950s. But it seems clear that, in fact, I had never encountered the actual Oz story before. I have also not seen the 1930s movie with Judy Garland, although I have seen short clips on TV, and I have enjoyed listening to her rendition of the song Somewhere, Over the Rainbow, which I believe was in the movie. There was an interesting film called Zardoz, with Sean Connery, which was worth seeing, but which had only the most rudimentary connection with the book. And also Australians are fond of calling their country "Oz", as a sort of abbreviation of the first syllable.
    Anyway, the story is that Dorothy, a little girl, is living in a farmhouse in Kansas. A tornado comes and sweeps it up into the air; she floats gently along for a long time - so long that she falls asleep - then the house lands in Oz, waking her up. It happens that the house has squashed the Wicked Witch of the East, and the Good Witch of the North comes in to congratulate Dorothy on this good deed. She gives Dorothy various presents, however Dorothy simply wants to return to her home in Kansas. For this purpose she is sent to the Wizard in the Emerald City of Oz, in the middle of the country. He is actually an impostor who was blown here in his balloon, and he would also like to return to Kansas, or Texas, or wherever he came from. But he doesn't know how. So in order to confuse things, he sends Dorothy and her companions off on a quest to kill the remaining Wicked Witch (of the West). She has little trouble doing this, dissolving the Wicked Witch with a bucket of water which melts the poor witch into a puddle of brown organic slime. Eventually she visits the Good Witch of the South, who tells her that since she is wearing the magic silver shoes, she need only say a few magic words, and the shoes transport her back to Kansas in only three steps.
    Fair enough. I thought the story was Ok. As I understand it, people have made a great thing of the Judy Garland film being an allegory of the triumph of World Socialism, or something. Or of the power of Homespun America. Be that as it may, I detected no very profound social messages in the book. The story seemed to me to be better than the average fairy tale, somewhat longer, but not overly so. I was able to get right through it while remaining amused and not particularly bored.
    While all of this witch business seems to be nothing but harmless nonsense in the present day and age, it is worth remembering that a few hundred years ago it was the source of much human suffering. The question of the tradition of witches riding on broomsticks is something which should not be dealt with in polite society.

(Note: I have now been told that the story is actually a satire on the political situation of the world at the beginning of the 20th century, in the style of Gulliver's Travels. In this interpretation, the heartless tin man stands for Industry, the yellow road to Oz stands for the Gold Standard, the cowardly lion stands for England, etc. This may well be true. But quite frankly I only saw a simple children's book when I read it. In contrast to this, the writings of Jonathan Swift are so obviously satirical that I have to laugh about them. Nothing in the Wizard of Oz struck me as being so funny that I actually laughed at it.
    In fact, I think that an even better case can be made for the proposition that the Wizard of Oz is really a satire on the situation of the world at the beginning of the 21st century. The Wizard, who is an impostor who has been blown into power through no fault of his own, owing to the vagaries of the wind blowing his balloon to Oz, is obviously George W. Bush. The Wicked Witch of the West is Condoleezza Rice. The scarecrow with no brains, filled with straw, is Alan Greenspan. The tin man who seizes up without lubricating oil is Modern Society. The flying monkeys which the Wicked Witch of the West calls in to attack her opponents are the airplanes swarming out of their aircraft carriers to drop bombs of death on the Arabs. And so forth.
     However, somehow I do not believe that L. Frank Baum was able to see into the future to the extent that he could knowingly write such a fitting satire on our present world situation. So, for me at least, this just serves to prove that it is not always sensible to read too much into a story. I prefer to take all of these stories at their face values.)

Wicked, by Gregory Maguire

    The link here is to the Broadway musical, which was based on the book. Maybe the musical is Ok. For me, the book isn't. I have to admit that I stopped reading it after just 60 pages. Somehow there simply are better things to do with the time one has in life than reading this sort of stuff. The book, which I have spent 14 euros on, has a section of color pictures of the Broadway musical in the middle. I suppose the actors look to be nice sorts of people who are doing their best. Perhaps it even has nice music. Perhaps it is even based on the actual Wizard of Oz story rather than this book. Who knows?
    But it wasn't just the fact that the book is itself a kind of glossy advertisement for the musical. All the pages have silly little pictures in the top corners, in the style of those fantasy books for children. It has sold over 1,000,000 copies. So the author, Gregory Maguire, has struck it rich. As far as I know however, he is not as rich as the woman who has written those "Harry Potter" books. For that, you have to motivate millions of shrieking children to get their parents to come with them to a bookshop and excitedly wait till midnight, when they are then allowed to buy the book - which I understand is even longer than the 409 pages of this one - and which costs even more than 14 euros!
    The worst thing is that this book has a section of 14 exercises at the end, which are called a "Reader's Group Guide". For example, consider exercise number 13, namely:

      "Who or what is Yackle?
       Where does she appear in the story, and what role does she serve in Elphaba's life?
       Is she good or evil - both or neither?"


Frankly, I simply couldn't care less about the answer to this question! Forget it. Give me the flunking mark, please. (The other 13 exam questions are longer than this one, but they all share this general tone. Namely the basic assumption is that this book is not something which should be chucked into the rubbish bin; rather it is assumed to be something which should be learned as part of the work of our lives! In the context of a fairy story such as this, such arrogance on the part of the author and the publishers seems to me to be totally intolerable!)
    In the first 60 pages of the book, almost nothing happens. Just a collection of horrid little ideas from everyday life. The husband is a kind of traveling salesman for religion. He is physically beaten by a mob of dumb people. His wife betrays him when he is away. Her sexual adventures are described in the breathless tones reminiscent of an American high school. As God's punishment for her wicked ways, she gives birth to a green baby with sharp teeth which bites everything it can. What a horrid little thought to give nightmares to the women readers of this book who had been thinking how nice it might be to breast-feed a baby.
    I thought that the book might pick itself up and become an amusing satire on modern life when Maguire began referring not to the "Wizard of Oz", but rather to Ozma! How interesting. I hadn't before considered the connection between Oz and that Emanuel Goldstein of the modern age. Indeed, the green color of the baby, and even of the Emerald City of the original Oz, is the color of Islam, isn't it? But no. Whether intentioned or not, this book avoids all controversial points of that nature. According to various blurbs on the cover, it is supposed to be concerned with the origins of evil. But the fact is that I simply cannot appreciate a book of this nature, produced by a citizen of the USA at a time like this when that country is the source of much of the evil in the world.

Arabian Sands, by Wilfred Thesiger

    A fantastic book. This link is to a website which has many more photographs which Thesiger took during his travels. Having all these pictures really gives a more complete picture of the whole thing. Take a look at the photos of Salim bin Ghabaisha, as a boy at the time he accompanied Thesiger across the Empty Quarter, and then during a sobering visit to Oman in 1977. What characters these are!
    Thesiger wasn't the first European to cross the Sands of the Empty Quarter of Arabia. That honor goes to Bertram Thomas, who crossed them in 1930. A few months later St. John Philby also crossed the sands. But they crossed along the shortest traverse. Between 1945 and 1950, Thesiger traveled all over the Empty Quarter in extensive tours. His first tour was undertaken at the request of the Middle East Anti-Locust Unit, whoever they were. The idea was that there might be unknown regions at the far end of Arabia where the locusts gather before forming their plagues. Thus he had the support of the governments throughout the region - such as they were in those days. In particular, King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia gave him free passage in his realm.
    While the heat and lack of water makes travel unpleasant in such places, that was not the real difficulty. The Empty Quarter was, in fact, not empty of people. It is the home of the Bedouin. (But Thesiger says that is a double plural. Apparently it is more correct to call them the Bedu.) So the Bedu consist of various tribes, with shifting alliances, constant plunderings. Thesiger preferred the Rashid as traveling companions. But for various stages, it was necessary to take along members of other tribes to prevent attack. It is fascinating to read of the system of loyalties - the laws of the desert - which applied in those days. Thesiger mentions that at least one historian has developed the theory that the rules of chivalry in medieval Europe were derived from the Bedu warriors.
    In any case, one rule was certainly that the Sands were not for the Infidel. Many of the tribes were extremely angry that a Christian was wandering around Arabia. But Thesiger's first excursion was made easy by the protection of the kings and sultans which he enjoyed, owing to the locust eradication project. His second crossing of the Sands was much more difficult. It was private; his own adventure. He was keen to map things and to see many of the places of legend, such as the quicksands of Umm al Samim or Jabal al Akhadar, a mountain which was the only feature on the otherwise blank maps of the region in those days. He did have his companions from the first crossing, but now all the important people were against him. King Saud strictly forbid him to enter Saudi Arabia. From Yemen, a large party of tribesmen was sent to kill him. Upon arrival - half dead - in Hassi, the townspeople could only spit on him. His companions were put in stocks and declared to be even worse than the Christian, since they, as believers, freely traveled with him. A radio message was sent to King Saud in Riyadh who lost himself in a dreadful fit of temper. But the situation was saved by Philby, who intervened on their behalf and gained their freedom. Thus they were driven from the town without food or water, and without a guide to take them further over the featureless Sands with which the Rashid were unfamiliar. And so it goes on. A great book.
    I will restrain myself from commenting further here on the tragedy which George W. Bush and his kind have brought to Arabia. Indeed, in those days the tribes recognized the fact that these Christians would destroy their lives. That is the reason they tried to prevent Thesiger from traveling with them. One can only say, as the Bedu are often quoted in this book, "Let the curses of God be upon them!".

The Rosetta Stone, by Robert Solé, Dominique Valbelle and W.V. Davies

    I've given the link here to the relevant web page of the Folio Society, since this book came from them (but I'll have to link to their main page once the special offer expires). Also, since I have put off re-joining for a long time this year, they have sent me increasingly desperate and generous offers to entice me into doing so. Thus I get all the other books illustrated on this web page, plus the corresponding books on the American Indian civilizations of the Maya, Aztecs, and the Incas, all for free! Good, isn't it? So there will be much material for writing interesting reviews here in the next few months. I will try to read slowly, in order to extend the enjoyment as long as possible.
    As far as the present book is concerned, it is really two short books, combined in this one book of the Folio Society. The first book was written by the first two (French) authors, and published in France in 1999 with the title La Pierre de Rosette, in order to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the discovery of that famous stone. The second part is the book (or booklet) Egyptian Hieroglyphs, published by the British Museum Press in 1987. Both books are very clearly and concisely written - a good change from the usual overly complicated style of books on such subjects as this.
    I assume that all readers of this review (assuming that there are any readers in the first place!) know what the Rosetta Stone is. I had always understood that it was de-coded by Champollion, and that was that. That's what it says in the encyclopedia, as far as I remember. Whenever mention is made of the Rosetta Stone, then in the next breath comes Champollion, whose wonderful achievement was the deciphering of the hieroglyphs, thus making all those Egyptian writings again readable for the modern world. But it turns out that the story is much more complicated than that.
    Not only the French, even the Egyptians are sometimes irritated by the fact that the stone is sitting in the British Museum. Yet even the French authors of the first book acknowledge the fact that that is a sensible place for it to be. Champollion was only one of many people who contributed to the task of learning about hieroglyphs. The good thing about these Folio books is that they have lots of illustrations, so you can see the characters of the various people. It is amazing how egotistical many of them were. But it is understandable. Anything related to ancient Egypt seems to attract hordes of esoteric people, all of whom tend to publish their esoteric books in the thousands, claiming to be the first to have understood the divine SECRET of something or other. A great secret of the world which THEY, in all their sublime wisdom, have been the first to discover. And so forth.
    Towards the end of the present book, short passages of the writings of two of the people working on the Rosetta stone at the beginning of the 19th century are reproduced. It is clear that Champollion drove himself to an early death by his tremendous ambition to be the name associated with the Stone in present-day encyclopedias. So fair enough. People have been kind enough to honor this ambition, which is expressed very clearly in the quoted passage. Nevertheless, Thomas Young - who distinguished himself in many other fields of scientific research (for example in optics) - contributed much as well. And his quoted passage on this subject is much calmer and clearer, describing simply what was known, and what was unknown at that time.
    But the fact is that at the time of Champollion's death, it was not possible to simply read all the hieroglyphs. In fact it was hardly possible to read any of them! Even today, some of the writings remain unclear. Gradually, as more and more hieroglyphs were read, the basic system of writing became more and more clear. In fact, later in the 19th century, a much better stone than the Rosetta stone was found, containing the same text, but including most of the missing parts which are broken from the the Rosetta stone. In any case, at that stage, the Rosetta stone had already become rather irrelevant for the advancement of Egyptology. In an appendix to the book, the text itself is reproduced (in English, of course). This is the most boring part of the book. It goes on and on, for page after page of nonsense. The striking thing is that all of this huge text is contained in the mere 30 or so lines of demotic script in the middle of the stone. Thus demotic seems to have been much more efficient than the corresponding Greek script, which is written in much smaller letters, over more lines, perhaps 50 or so.
    As far as the hieroglyphic writing itself is concerned, it seems to be a combination of word pictures and symbols for sounds. This is similar to the joking sort of texts one often sees in children's books. For example:

"We prefer to go to the S  on a b rather than using the v since that way, we can go through the  P , even though we might thereby end up in an h. (Not to mention the possibility of !!)"

Perhaps such writing would not have been difficult for Young, Champollion, and the rest to understand. However old Egyptian is much more complicated than this since it is mixed in with lots of things which, unfortunately, this hieroglyphic system for html - called the "webdings" font (hopefully your browser has it) - is not rich enough in possibilities to illustrate here. For example Davies says that an analogous idea in the English language would be to have hieroglyphs being pictures of a bee and a leaf. Then the text consisting of those two pictures together would be the word "belief".
    So hieroglyphics remained complicated and obscure, and the vast majority of the old Egyptians were illiterate. Contrast this with the much more sensible system developed by Sequoyah, of the Cherokee tribe of North American Indians in 1821. Before this time, the tribe had found no need for a written language. But then Sequoyah isolated the 86 noises which constituted the spoken Cherokee language. He gave each of these its own unique printed symbol. Thus learning to read consisted in memorizing nothing more than the 86 letters of the alphabet. Once learned, reading and writing was trivial. Almost immediately the entire Cherokee tribe became literate and began printing newspapers, books, and so on. This shows the superiority of such a system to the extremely complicated hieroglyphic system.

Sleep it Off Lady, by Jean Rhys

    According to this link, the present book was Jean Rhys last one, and it was not supposed to be of the same importance as Wide Sargasso Sea, and her other earlier works. Well, I thought it was good. Very good.
    It is a collection of short stories in different original, varied, direct styles. Very soon one realizes that these are episodes from the life of the author, or at least they are episodes which illustrate the times of the authors life. The first stories are things happening to a little - gradually not so little - girl in Dominica (the West Indies). These aren't just nice little stories of childhood. They really make you think. Then she is in a boarding school in cold England. And in the end, she dies a rather lonely, sordid death in a gray, cold, windswept house in England. The book made a strong impression on me. Jean Rhys was a great writer.

The Hittites, by O.R. Gurney

     The first edition of this book appeared in 1952. Yet the author, who was born in 1911, seems to be still alive, and he made further revisions to the text at the time this Folio edition came out in 1999. So his active longevity and devotion to his subject reflects the ancient theme of the book. But to be honest, I must tell you that I almost think that you can get more out of clicking through a web page such as the one I have referenced here, rather than reading this book. On the other hand, of course reading a book is a more peaceful process than clicking nervously away at a computer. And this book certainly has much, much more information than can be found in these often unreliable internet things.
    Our knowledge of the Hittites stems from reading their tone tablets. Apart from that, little is left. In fact, according to the first chapter of this book, it used to be thought that the Hittites were nothing more than one of the obscure little tribes mentioned in the Bible, in particular in Genesis: 15:18-21 (which is sometimes considered to be important in dealing with questions of modern-day real estate). But then, in 1812, Burckhardt, in his travels through the Near East, spotted some unusual stones in a bazaar at Aleppo. Only in the 1870s were they looked at more closely by the experts. (The natives had objected to them being investigated further. In particular they attributed to one of the stones the power of curing ophthalmia when it was rubbed by the sufferer.) Anyway, it gradually became clear that the language on these stones was similar to things being discovered on the high plateau in the middle of Turkey. And so people realized that the Hittites were not an obscure tribe, but rather they were one of the great powers of the world back then in the period from 1700-1200 B.C., or so. At the end of that period, they were destroyed by the "Sea Peoples". The Hittite tribes of the Bible were perhaps just scattered remnants - disconnected from their original lands - with only a vague memory of the distant past.
    So what is known? It seems that in the period before the Hittites, the warriors of old rumbled along in their primitive chariots with solid wood wheels. I can imagine that when traveling in such slow-moving contraptions, they must have been very vulnerable to people jumping at them with spears, swords, and what have you. Thus, some military genius of the ancient world meditated on the heaviness of contemporary chariots and suddenly realized that all of that wood in the wheels wasn't really totally necessary. By substituting spoked wheels, it was discovered that the chariots still worked, and they were not as cumbersome as the previous solid-wheeled variety. This was the basis of Hittite military prowess.
    Actually of course, the other peoples of the world during that epoch also tried to copy the Hittite design of chariot wheel, but without quite the same success. For example, the Egyptians apparently adopted spoked wheels, but perhaps they were afraid that those flimsy-looking wheels couldn't support all that much weight. Thus they only equipped their chariots with two operators, namely the driver and the fighter. The Hittites, on the other hand, being more confident in the art of making spoked wheels, occupied their chariots with three operators, namely (i) the driver, (ii) the offensive warrior, and (iii) the defensive warrior. So a single Hittite chariot had twice the firepower of an Egyptian one. The texts on their tablets, many of which come from the city of Hattusas in Anatolia, describe these military matters, and the lives of the kings, and so on.
    Then most of the rest of the texts are concerned with religion. The main god of the Hittites was called the Weather-god. So whereas the Egyptians, perspiring constantly under the burning desert sun, thought that the Sun was the big thing, the Hittites, shivering in the cold winter snows of Anatolia, being struck by violent strokes of lightning, thought that the universe was ruled by the Weather. (In this sense, they seem to have anticipated the modern cult of weather worship which has so angered Michael Crichton.) Thus, when the kings describe their great military campaigns, they are constantly invoking the Weather-god.
    But then, each Hittite town had its own temple, with its local god. That was generally a wooden statue covered with gold leaf, or perhaps a smaller gold or silver, or even just bronze statue. Gurney explains how it was thought that the relationship of the king, or the priests, to the god was similar to the relationship of servants (or slaves) to their master.
    A servant must always try to please his master, who may, from time to time, be subject to difficult whims, or even cruel outbursts. Yet the house must be kept clean. The master must also be cleaned, fed, and what have you. Throughout all of this, the servant must always avoid offending his master. If, at any time, the servant were to allow himself some inappropriate outburst, then the master will have him severely punished, even killed.
    In the same way, if the King of the Hittites did not serve the Weather-god faithfully, then he might well be punished. Ditto the local kings of the towns, or the priests of the temples. If the routine of cleaning the temple, feeding the god, and so on, is not properly observed, then the god may show his wrath and punish his servants. Obviously the Weather-god has many ways of doing this. The god can also make everybody sick. There are lots of things these angry gods can do. One great problem which society faced in those days (and indeed today) was that it was difficult to understand what the god was thinking. If you just asked him a question, then he would refuse to answer, at least in an audible way. One practical method of dealing with this problem was to dump the intestines, and other organs, of a freshly sacrificed animal on the ground in front of the god, while at the same time asking the god a question. Sort of like playing "20 questions". If the shape of the liver, or the intestines, was something or another, then that meant "yes". Another shape meant "no".
    And so life went on in the ancient world. I imagine that if, in the year 5500 A.D., the People of the Future were to discover the artifacts of the present epoch of world history, then they would not say that we occupy ourselves with serving the wishes of a statue. No. They would say that we serve the wishes of Money. Yet I wonder if serving the Money-god is more satisfying than serving the Weather-god?
    But to be quite frank, I must admit that I would find it to be rather boring to spend a life reading these obscure Hittite tone tablets relating to such subjects. So I admire O.R. Gurney and all those other archaeologists for their perseverance in these studies. Of course they are not bored. On the contrary, as with all academic studies, the various opinions on one subject or another are attended with bitter controversy. For example, the realm of the Ahhiyawans plays a big role in Hittite texts. Early investigators breathlessly identified this with the Homeric Achaioi. That is the Mycenaean Greeks. But of course this has led to endless disputes, depending upon  the differences between such words as: Achaiwiā, Ahhiyawā, Achaiwiā, etc., and on the Greek side, such words as Achaiis, Achaiia, Achiiê, or perhaps Achaïa. Such are the great subjects of contemporary archaeological dispute in this field of academic research.

Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

     According to this link, the present book is one of the greatest novels which has been written, at least in recent times. The Pen/Faulkner Award, the Orange Prize (and I suppose the Yellow, Green, Red, Brown, and whatever further colors of the rainbow you can think of Prizes), the National Book Critics Circle Award, etc. What a great book!
    I had thought that all of this excitement was just these (United States) Americans whipping themselves up into a frenzy of hysterical acclaim. But then I noticed - as part of the blurb on the back of the paperback edition of the book which I read - that even Alex Clark of the Guardian has allowed himself to become carried away in the hype. Well, readers of my website (if there are indeed any such people) can be assured that I confine myself to living simply in reality. The reality is that I only read this book because it was suggested as the next book for our reading circle. And the reality behind the story of this book is the Japanese Embassy Hostage Crisis, which you can read about, for example, here.
    So the author of this book has taken the story and placed it in "a South American Country", having a fictitious president with a Japanese name. According to her version of reality, it all started in the wonderful house of the Vice President of the "South American Country" where Roxane Coss, the greatest soprano singer of all time (who - like the author - is  an American woman) is giving a recital to celebrate the birthday of a Japanese industrialist. Many foreign people: diplomats, further industrialists, politicians, and what have you, most of whom cannot speak Spanish, are attending the party. Suddenly, after the American soprano sings her last song, thereby overwhelming all present, the lights go out and in come the terrorists.
    After the initial shock and uncertainty, it turns out that they are all extremely lovable people. Since hardly anybody can speak the language of anybody else, but, on the other hand, Gen, the Japanese translator, can speak everybody's languages, we live vicariously through all the otherwise speachless love affairs by means of his translations. Gen also falls passionately in love with Carmen, the lovely young terrorist whom everybody had at first mistaken for a boy. While love gushes everywhere to the accompaniment of the breathtaking vocal performances of Roxane, we learn that we are also in the presence of Cesar, who, although he has grown up in the jungle to be an illiterate terrorist, still, he is potentially the greatest tenor singer of all time. And so forth.
    So the moral of the story is that - ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE! The second moral of the story is that even terrorists have their positive sides.
    Great! I am sure that this is a message many U.S. Americans want to hear. In fact, by agreeing to this thesis, we show that we are existing on a higher plane than such people as Donald Rumsfield and Dick Cheney, who constantly tell us that it is forbidden to love the terrorists. Thus, by saying that this book is wonderful, and by awarding it all these wonderful prizes, we are showing the world, or at least ourselves, that we are nicer people than those horrible neocons. Therefore I leave it to all you U.S. Americans to celebrate this book.

YYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY

    Let us now turn to reality. First of all, it is obvious that almost all the people attending such a party in Peru would be able to speak English to a greater or lesser extent. Furthermore, it may well astonish Ann Patchett to hear this, but unlike the practice in her country, the reality is that the ambassadors of France, Germany, England, and what have you, have not been selected on the basis of how much money they have paid in bribery for the position. No! Strange as it may seem to her, they have actually been selected on the basis of their qualifications! Therefore they would be capable of speaking both English and Spanish. In fact, I suspect that most French and German (and, of course, English) ambassadors are more familiar with English literature than Ann Patchett herself!
    According to this book, the reason the terrorists took all the people hostage is that they would also like to live a nice life like everybody else. For example, all the privileged people in the "South American Country" look at a particular soap opera on television. But the poor terrorists have only seen broken television sets. Thus they had thought that televisions are - in fact - inferior mirrors to look at yourself in the curved, broken glass. (Apparently the era of broken flat-screen TVs had not yet reached the jungle at that stage.) So they are themselves astonished by the experience of seeing a working TV, with a soap opera. And so forth.
    But is this the real reason that people joined the Shining Path movement in Peru? Ann Patchett has probably never heard of the School of the Americas, which is situated in her country, and where all of the U.S. American torture methods are taught. She would not want to know about the various democratically elected presidents of South American countries who have been assassinated by the CIA for refusing to follow the policy of the U.S.A., which is to keep a few wealthy despots in power who pay money to their U.S. backers, while at the same time keeping the mass of poor people under control.
    So this brings us back to the central figure of this book, Roxane Coss, the American soprano who is the center of this great love-in. Now it is true that a great soprano can create an overwhelming emotional experience. When I was a student in Canberra I heard Kiri Te Kanawa singing Strauss' Four Last Songs. Not only was I overwhelmed. The whole audience exploded with a tremendous outburst of loving emotion. But why did we all love her? It was not only her voice, which was totally overwhelming in itself. We also loved her for her Maori background, for the freedom of the wide Pacific, and for her giving us the wonderful thoughts in the songs.
    Are there any good American soprano singers? I suppose there must be some who have a mastery of all the techniques. They may even be appreciated by the wealthy South American despots who have the money to pay them to come and sing for them. But I hardly think that the victims of U.S. policy in South America would like to hear them.

The Persians, by J.M. Cook

     In my ignorance, before reading this book, I had not realized that the two names Iran and Aryan (or Ariane) are the same thing. Like the fact that Peking is now supposed to be Beijing, reflecting merely the circumstance that it is difficult to know how to spell these foreign names. Therefore we see that the Nazis of Germany 70 years ago entertained the strange fantasy that all non-Jewish inhabitants of their country were actually Persians, or at least Iranians! This is similar to the fact that the present-day inhabitants of the United States, as far as they are of predominately European ancestry, apparently believe that they are actually inhabitants of the Caucasian Mountains in Central Asia! Indeed, those mountains did form part of the northern boundary of the Persian Empire. But somehow, I wonder if it would be a sensible thing for such an inhabitant of the U.S.A. to claim to be an Aryan? Particularly considering the fact that at the present time these Central Asian inhabitants of the U.S.A. seem to be consuming themselves with the fantasy that the Aryans are, in fact, Nazis! But so much for the absurdities of modern life.
    (Actually, according to this book, the Arab geographers called the Caucasus Mountains the "mountain of languages". It was a refuge of forgotten peoples, and Strabo wrote that 70 different languages were spoken there. Cook asserts that even in the present day, at least fifty different languages are reported as being spoken in the Caucasus!)
    In any case, the link I have given here gives a broad history of the Persians. On the other hand, the present book is only concerned with the very narrow time-frame from 560-330 B.C., which was the time of the Persian Empire. At the beginning of this time, Persis was an obscure trouble spot up in the Zagros Mountains to the east of Babylon. But then Cyrus the Great became King of Persis and proceeded to conquer the known world (except for Egypt, which his son Cambyses conquered). So perhaps we can say that this achievement of Cyrus was even greater than the achievement of Alexander, who conquered Persia in 330, at the end of our period. After all, Alexander started off with a hardened Macedonian army, whereas Cyrus really began from scratch with just a few primitive tribesmen to help him. Furthermore, Cyrus has gone down in history as a very tolerant ruler - in contrast to both Alexander and to Cambyses. Also he had a long and happy rule, down to 530 B.C. This was also something which neither Alexander, nor Cambyses was able to achieve.
    So why is history so full of Alexander, while Cyrus remains obscure (at least for me, in my general ignorance of history, in addition to my ignorance of the names which the various peoples of the world like to call themselves)? Well, the answer to this seems to be that in order to be famous in history, you have to be a part of history. And in order to be that, you have to have an historian who is prepared to write down your history. Without that, as in the case of the Hittites, there is nothing much to write about.
    Of course Alexander was surrounded by historians, writing down all his various deeds, and then the Romans and the scribes of the Middle Ages kept this history alive so that we can read about all the juicy details. This sort of journalistic writing of history seems to have been a Greek invention. Since the Greeks spent much of their energies in fighting the Persians, a few of them were sufficiently interested to write such histories about the Persians as well. So this is the basis of our knowledge of Persian history.
    But I was surprised to read of the paucity of such historical sources. There is Herodotus, and then that is just about it. The author of the present book devotes a whole chapter to "The Sources", discussing the problems with Herodotus, and then the much greater problems with Xenophon, Ctesias, Strabo, and a few even more obscure sources. Of course the Persians, living in this period, a thousand years later than the Hittites, did leave more relics. In particular there are the remains of Persepolis, which was initially burned to the ground by Alexander. But without the Greek authors, we would be left with simply a collection of inscriptions, describing how wonderful this or that king was, or else this or that god.
    Therefore the modern academic field of studies of the Persians seems to reduce to endless debates on the meaning, or reliability of the various passages in Herodotus. For this reason, I found the book to be heavy going. Rather than simply saying that Xerxes number I or II, or the respective Darius, did something, the author of the present book describes the controversies surrounding the given assertion, quoting one author against the other, with extensive footnotes. Often the author of the present book frames his descriptions of these controversies in more or less obscure ironies, making the whole thing even denser than it would otherwise be.
    But it would seem that in the end, the Persian Empire was falling apart from its own internal weakness. Half of the soldiers - the ones who were most effective - were Greek mercenaries. They had just succeeded in recapturing Egypt for the Persians. And Phillip of Macedonia was already well into his preparations for invading Persia when he died, giving the crown to his son Alexander. Thus Alexander's various conquests were not all that wonderful, or even unexpected. Particularly given the fact that Darius III simply ran away at each encounter.
    When looking at photos of the ruins of Persepolis, one is struck by the fact that it is sitting in the middle of a totally barren desert. How did the people live there back in those days, 2500 years ago? The answer is that 2500 years ago it wasn't a desert! It was full of gardens, orchards, and what have you. Therefore we have here a practical example of climate change.
    What caused the climate to change at Persepolis? Modern scientists might propose the theory that it is caused by people driving their cars too much. Or the burning of coal. However these explanations are soon discovered to be inadequate when one realizes that the climate at Persepolis became dry even before the industrial era of western civilization. J.M. Cook, writing in the year 1982, said that this is an example of desertification. Yes. That was the popular theory back in those days. It was thought that climate change was caused by the grazing of domestic animals. Then came the theory of the nuclear winter. And now we have global warming. So all of these people in the "soft sciences" sway back and forth, publishing their various papers about climate change. But in reality, the climate is always changing, whether we like it or not, and in fact it even had the audacity to change itself before the time when humans existed on the earth!
    For example, on the one hand the carbon dioxide content of the earth's atmosphere was around 4400ppm - that is more than ten times the present level - during the Ordovician period of geological time, yet global temperature was as low as it is today. (That is to say, in comparison with the average temperature over the last 600 million years, it was extremely cold. Then, as now, the world was going through a phase of ice ages.) On the other hand, during the early Carboniferous period, CO2 levels were almost as low as they are today, yet global temperatures were almost 10°C higher, on average! This higher temperature is more the norm in terms of geological time.

The Incas, by Nigel Davies

     The thing about the Incas is that they - along with their predecessors in the Andes of South America - had no system of writing. So I suppose a society without writing is analogous to a person with no long-term memories. Short-term memories are just brain-waves of electro-chemical activities, sloshing around within the skull, only to be replaced by new brain-waves in the presence of new stimuli. In the process, the old memories are lost. In contrast, long-term memories are "hard-wired" by the creation of new synapses between the brain cells. So a society without writing quickly forgets what happened a couple of generations ago. Thinking about this, I imagine that most of us have little idea what our grandparents did, and know almost nothing of our great grandparents, and beyond. Only if those earlier generations took the trouble to write things down - and if the intermediate generations bothered to preserve such writings - do we have any real idea of the lives of our direct ancestors.
     But in a way, this lack of writing of the people under investigation tends to improve the writing of history. Rather than wading through tedious lists of kings, battles, absurd religious rites, and so forth, the author can concentrate on what has been left to us in the way of archaeological artifacts. So I enjoyed the first part of this book more than the second part. In the first part, the cultures of Moche, Nazca, Tiahuanaco, Huari, and all the rest are dealt with. They were all beyond human memory at the time of the Spanish conquest. This circumstance has lead to hoards of esoterical people descending into Peru, and Davies does describe some of their theories, and also various theories of the more professional types of theoreticians in this whole field. (But the esoteric types may derive some satisfaction from the fact that the professionals also have an extremely varied range of opinions.)
    The thing that seems curious to me is the question of how those old South American people were able to get their stone walls to fit together so nicely. Unfortunately Nigel Davies is not interested in this question. I suppose it was just a matter of banging stones together, gradually wearing them down and seeing if they fit, then by seeing the impression on the stone dust of the worked stone, getting a feeling where to bang them down a bit more to get a nearly perfect fit.
    In the end, the study of the history of the Incas boils down to studying the manuscripts which a few Spanish people wrote down, after questioning the natives, a generation or two after they had conquered them. And so historians quibble about the differences between this manuscript and the next. Perhaps one manuscript was copied from another, and so on.
    We all know how brutal the Spanish were. But the Incas and their predecessors were also brutal. Much of the art of the Andes was (as indeed it is the case with the numerous crucifixes which fill the schools of Bavaria) concerned with scenes of torture. If the Spanish enslaved the Incas to force them to work in the gold mines, this was only what the Incas had done to other peoples before them. When the Spanish arrived, the Incas were consuming themselves in a bitter war of succession between Huascar and Atahualpa. Although Atahualpa succeeded in winning, and thus had the enjoyment of subjecting his rival Huascar to degradation and death, all of this only cleared the field for Pizarro to reduce the whole empire with ease.

Apart from all this history, one thing which struck me as strange was the practice in this book of giving distances in miles, feet, and yards, then (almost) always in parenthesis, the approximate equivalent in meters, kilometers, etc. It seems to me that it would have sufficed to have put a little table for converting these quaint, historical units into a more recognizable form at the beginning of the book, and then left it to the interested reader to do so. Surely, after hundreds of repetitions, we all know what a "mile" and a "yard" is! But I must admit that I had forgotten what a "league" is, and it was just at this point, where Davies was describing the initial conquests of Pachacutec, proceeding so many "leagues" from Cuzco, that I asked myself "What is a league?" He doesn't tell us! So for the information of any readers who are similarly ignorant of such matters, and who nevertheless would like to read this book, let me inform you that after consultation with my dictionary I have now (re)discovered the fact that a league is "a measure of distance varying for different times and countries from about 2.4 to 4.6 miles (3.9-7.4 kilometers)". (Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary)

The Maya, by Norman Hammond

     So the Maya did have a written language. They, along with the other inhabitants of Latin America, were conquered by the Spanish who, of course, also had a written language. Unfortunately the Spanish were not particularly interested in the languages of the "heathen" peoples of the earth. They were more interested in acquiring as much gold as possible, but also they considered anything strange to be the work of the Devil, and thus worthy of being stamped out and burned. The most notorious inquisitor in the Maya realms was Bishop Diego de Landa, whose lust was not merely satisfied with the ceremonies of torturing his victims. Beyond that, he caused all Maya books to be collected and burned. His evil excesses were so great as to catch the attention of the main inquisitors back in Spain. So he was summoned for trial, but escaped the full fury of the Spanish Inquisition himself. In order to save his skin, he tried to write down all he had learned of Maya culture in order to prove its devilish nature. And so the sad fact is that these writings of Landa are practically the most important key to understanding that lost civilization.
    Starting from the rather primitive association of a few Maya hieroglyphs with Latin letters in Landa's scribblings, modern scholars have gradually been able to understand more and more of the texts. Only three books have - partly - survived. But there are many inscriptions on various stone monuments, and on tone pottery, which Landa was unable to destroy.
    This book describes the history of the Maya - as far as we can piece it together - by describing the history of modern scholars working in the field of Maya research, beginning with John Lloyd Stevens back in 1837. It makes an interesting story.
    Unfortunately I was again irritated by the continuous practice of expressing distances in inches, feet, yards, miles, etc., and then the (metric) equivalents in parenthesis. Is this standard practice for such books, or was it just an idea of the Folio Society when publishing these linked volumes? Obviously most of the distances mentioned are just approximate. For example, when describing a middle sort of distance, half the time in this book it is described as being about 100 yards (91.5 m), then the other half of the time it is 109 yards (100 m). Thus I was continuously wondering whether we are supposed to be thinking in terms of yards, or rather meters? What a ridiculous distraction! The worst example is at the bottom of page 140 of this Folio edition, where it is said that:

The single or grouped house platforms are often found in clusters, each group in the cluster being perhaps 328 feet (100 m) from the next, ... etc.


To take this sort of thinking to an extreme, one might for example say that towns in the mid-western states of the United States are perhaps spaced about 393696 inches (10 km) apart on average. Then a few paragraphs on, one could recall that thought by saying that the towns are spaced about 10 miles (1609344 cm) apart. And so forth. What nonsense!
    Anyway, it is known that the Maya were very interested in playing around with numbers, and also with astronomical observations. They imagined that Venus was the "wasp" star, which might sting the sun, causing untold catastrophes. Therefore they kept careful records of the movements of Venus - how many days it was the morning star, how many the evening star, and how many in the invisible periods when it was lined up with the sun. This leads to more and more refined cycles of numbers. The Dresden Codex - one of the three books which survived Landa's inquisition - deals with this. How sad it is that we have lost all of the other books on Maya mathematics.
    It is easy to draw parallels between the Maya and the ancient Egyptians. Their writing systems - as complicated as they were - are similar, in principle. Both cultures built pyramids. If the Spanish had not been so depraved by the evil of their religion then they would have been able to marvel at their new world, as if they were taking a step back a few thousand years into their own cultural heritage.
    Indeed, the present situation of the Maya people is worth thinking about. If, as it seems to me to be likely, the main problem with the world today is overpopulation, then it is important to think about how to reduce the size of humanity to a more sustainable level. (Despite the hand-wringing of present-day European politicians.) The Maya are an example of a people whose population during their "classical" phase (250-900 AD) was much higher than it is today. They grew a large variety of foods by digging canals and thus making self-sustaining fertile areas of raised land in what was once jungle. So they had a large, well-fed population on tropical rain-forest land, using advanced, aggressive techniques of land management. Yet at the end of the classical period, a time of chaos ensued, and the jungle reclaimed the land. Today, a small population of Maya exist using the "slash and burn" system of jungle planting. Their diet is very restricted. Hammond says that as much as 85 percent of their diet is corn (maize). So they have become a small people, only 150 cm tall or so, their growth being restricted by the limitations of their food. During the classical period they were physically bigger and stronger. Could this be the fate of the rest of humanity as well?

Voyage in the Dark, by Jean Rhys

     This link has a picture of Jean Rhys as a young woman, and much biographical information. The title of the book reminds me of the film Dancer in the Dark, with Björk. There are similarities in the two stories. Young women facing a brutal world. But whereas Björk dies tragically at the end of the film, the heroine of this book, Anna, ends up having an abortion. It is also horrible. As the short resumé at the beginning of this hard-cover edition says, "No more brilliant account of the destruction - partly the self-destruction - of innocence has ever been written."
    I can't think of any other writer who can create such a dream-like feeling in tragedy. This novel is far more direct than her better known Wide Sargasso Sea. Jean Rhys said that she only wrote about her own life. Her first love affair was in London as a young woman before the First World War. She put down those experiences into a few notebooks. Then 20 years later, in 1934, she created this book out of those notes.
    As in the book, Jean Rhys grew up on the island of Dominica in the Caribbean. She was sent to England, where she attended a school in Cambridge for a year, then began studying acting, but she ran out of money when her father died. So she joined a musical company, touring with them as a member of the chorus. She, or at least her character in the book, was taken up by a rich man who perhaps loved her fleetingly, but he certainly loved sleeping with her. And then he dropped her, but he offered to keep her going financially for a while. She was too proud for this. And so she drifts from one depressing "bed-sitter" to the next in London, thinking about cloths and always being short of money. She lives from the money her "boyfriends", or rather her man-friends, put in her handbag after spending the night. Jean Rhys herself - after this unpleasant phase - married, but it seems that none of her marriages were happy. She became the lover of Ford Madox Ford, who encouraged her in her literary ambitions. (Of course she is now recognized as a far greater writer than he was.)
     This book evokes the feeling of London in those days. She often travels through the "tube" from one place to another. Then she is taken on to other places by taxi. The houses are gray, dreary, all alike. The streets are like oily rivers. Dark, gray fog is everywhere. It rains. The people are cold, unfeeling, like walls. She dreams of the Caribbean, of the sun, of the smell of tropical trees and flowers and the sea. She wishes that she was of African ancestry since such people have true, honest feelings. Yet she realizes that the Africans were as much newcomers to the Caribbean as were the Europeans. (The original inhabitants, the Caribs, were nearly exterminated, and one of their last refuges was on the island of Dominica. There, they were not only able to resist Columbus, indeed, they were able to maintain their independence into the 18th century.)

Der Schwarm, by Frank Schätzing

    This book is a best seller in Germany. It was recommended to me, and so I thought I would see what it was like. Going into the University Bookshop, I asked if they had it, and so they pointed out a pile of copies of the book, topped by a poster, having a large picture, looking like the iris of a blue eye. Although it only costs 10 euros, it is a thick book with 987 pages! So it costs lots of time to read it.
    One of the main characters in the book is an Eskimo named Leon Anawak whose family had sunk into a degenerate state of degradation as a result of the oppressive influence of 1950s Canadian culture. So he became an orphan, and then later he became an established academic in the field of whale studies. Thus he adopted the hectic lifestyle of the white Canadians, including the concept of "wasting time", and he rejects his Eskimo background. Later, during the time of the book, Eskimo society had recovered somewhat. He visits his birthplace in the high north of Canada. It has become a kind of country in its own right, called Nunavut. (I hadn't heard of that before. There are interesting Internet links to Nunavut which you can find via google.) Anawak has the feeling that this visit is just costing him lots of time, but his uncle, who is a respected figure in Cape Dorset, then tells him that time costs nothing. It exists whether we like it or not. So I suppose the great amount of time it takes to read this book is a meditation on the meaning of time. It is the opposite of the precise, elegant style of Jean Rhys. Anyway, the story is the kind of science fiction which we associate with Michael Chrichton. But, if one is prepared to put up with the great length of the book, spending a week or two living in it, one finds that it's better than Chrichton. The science is plausible, the characters are more or less believable. Unfortunately though, at the end it does turn into a rather silly action adventure, in the style of Chrichton.
    The basic idea is that we are not the only intelligent creatures on the Earth. In fact, there is intelligent life in the depths of the oceans. This is not whales, or porpoises. Just now I was listening to a CD of the noises various kinds of whales make, and to be quite honest (and at the risk of offending people who would like to think that whales are just like people who are talking to one another) it seems to me that whale noises are no different than the barnyard squeaks and grunts of pigs or cows. That is to say, it seems to me that it makes no sense to imagine that such animals are "really" just people who are having difficulties speaking. That is nonsense! Their intelligence is of a different kind than ours. So the idea in this book is that there is another kind of intelligence in the oceans which is sufficiently similar to ours that we can understand it. In fact, it is far superior to our intelligence!
    Rather than being confined to the brain of some large animal, this intelligence is formed when huge numbers of single-celled amoeba come together and form a gigantic brain - with synapses and so on - rather like mushroom cells living under the earth coming together to make a mushroom. So this brain is ever-changing. It is also immortal and it is arbitrarily large since new cells can simply come in to replace the ones which have died off. Schätzing goes into much detail about how all of this could work. At the end of the book he thanks loads of different university professors, all of whom have helped him to think about such things in sensible ways.

    But if there is this immortal form of intelligent life deep within the ocean, why don't we know about it? Well, the fact is that the bottom of the ocean is far away. It may be only 3 or 4 kilometers from the surface - nothing more than the distance from one hilltop to the next in any landscape on the surface of the earth - but for all practical purposes it is very far away and beyond all human experience. The few capsules which have sent pictures back from the depths only show a few square meters. And all the water down there certainly is filled with billions and billions of amoeba which are all doing heaven knows what!
    So this ocean-filling intelligence suddenly becomes aware of the fact that the surface of the earth has become sick. A sort of cancer is multiplying all over the surface - namely humanity. Poisons are entering the oceans. Naval ships are emitting such loud noises that the ear-drums of the whales burst and bleed. (How does Donald Rumsfield, who is supposed to be ultimately responsible for these military things, justify this torture of whales? He said that since he can stand at his writing table for a couple of hours at a time, it follows that the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay can be tortured. I suppose he would similarly say that since young people voluntarily subject themselves to 100db of noise at pop concerts, the whales can stand it too. However, the whales must endure over 200db! Enough to make them bleed internally. Such loud noises are also supposed to be part of the Guantanamo torture methods.)
    But to return to the story, it is clear that in the same way that a person who has cancer tries to eliminate it with chemo-therapy, surgery, and so forth, this intelligence in the ocean tries to eliminate the sickness at the surface of the earth. There are many ways to do this, and here the book becomes quite interesting. I hadn't realized that the methane in the oceans is bound within ice (and thus the ice doesn't rise to the surface). It is easy to imagine that this ice could become unstable, causing huge tsunamis, and then huge amounts of methane would be released into the atmosphere. Apparently this has happened often in geological time. As we know, CO2 has little real effect on the atmosphere, despite all the nonsense which is constantly sprinkled on us through the "news". But methane is really an effective greenhouse gas. The book describes a number of further, very real possibilities for the ocean to hit back at humanity.
    Unfortunately the book degenerated into a slapstick, Hollywood action drama, which was a shame. There was even a "happy end", in that the life in the depths was prepared to accept us. Yet this seems to me to be very unlikely. After all, what person with cancer would say, after getting it under control, "Oh, lets be nice and let some of the cancer cells live on. I'll just leave some cancer in my body, since I love that form of life too."? Surely that is crazy. When you have cancer, you want to get rid of it completely!
    But still, the end of the book did have its amusing sides. Typically, the fight against the ocean was led by the United States military establishment, and so everything was subjected to CIA secrecy. In the book, the President of the USA is a funny caricature of the present inhabitant of that position. But the central character is a woman named Judith Lie, who is an Asian-American. This is a caricature of Condoleezza Rice. Judith Lie turns out to be purely evil, false, ruthless. Perhaps such behavior would be appropriate in the situation of this book. So it is interesting to speculate about what drives the real Condi, and how much responsibility she carries for the present excesses of evil in the world.

The Aztecs, by Nigel Davies

    After reading this book, it was still unclear to me whether or not the Aztecs had a system of writing, or whether the historical sources were, as with the Incas, simply narratives written down by interested Spanish people in the 16th century. Therefore I have given this link which discusses the Aztec writing system, and the extent (or lack of it) of the original sources which are available for the modern historian.
    The book was for me much more interesting that Davies' other book on the Incas. He tells the story of the Aztec (or Mexica) origins in the almost mythical regions of Aztatlan, their quest for greatness, following the instructions of their god, Huitzilopochtli, and finally their arrival - or rather refuge - on the small marshy island of Tenochtitlan in the middle of the Texcoco Lake. We learn of the characters of their various leaders. At first they barely survived, seeking protection by the more established peoples in the towns on the lake. But gradually they maneuvered themselves into a position of dominance, and then, particularly through the efforts of Moctezuma I (who reigned from 1440 till 1468), and Ahuitzotl, whose reign lasted from 1486 till 1502, they conquered most of what is now central Mexico.
    Before reading this book, I just thought that the standard, "politically correct" story about Mexico was, basically, all there was to know. Namely that the original inhabitants of America were living nicely, according to their own way of thinking (perhaps emphasizing human sacrifice a bit to much for our modern taste), but then the brutal Spanish came in, suddenly captured the poor, innocent Moctezuma II, tortured him horribly so that he died, and then the Indians were so shocked that they let themselves be overwhelmed by this horrible European mess.
    But that's not the way it was at all! To begin with, Cortés did not torture Moctezuma II (or Montezuma; why is it spelled one way in this book, and the other way in other places?). Thus it is unfair to poor Cortés when the modern tourist to Mexico gets dysentery and then blames him for it. The Spanish treated Moctezuma with great honor, and in fact Moctezuma died under a hail of stones from his fellow Indians when he was trying to get them to make peace with the Spanish. On the other hand, Moctezuma was a man of extreme brutality. For example, in his anxiety, when learning of the slow approach of the Spanish to his domains, he received reports of their progress. But in order to "bless" each of these reports, whenever a messenger came to him, he had numbers of people sacrificed, and then the messengers were sprinkled with the sacrificial blood before they spoke.
    This whole business of human sacrifice was at the center of the Aztec's religion, in fact their whole view of the world. They thought that, just as human life was limited, so the life of the universe was limited, and in fact it had died, but been saved, four times already. We are now living in the fifth, final, phase of things. But to keep everything going, and in particular to keep the sun moving through the heavens in this last, tired phase of its life, it was necessary to offer it - and all the other various gods - living human hearts cut from sacrificial victims. The earlier peoples of Middle America also viewed things in this way, but the Aztecs worked themselves into an hysterical extreme of such sacrifice. The main point of their wars was to capture living prisoners, in order to bring them to the sacrificial stone. The only merit a man enjoyed in Aztec civilization was based on the number of living prisoners he had brought back from the wars. Of course, the gods also especially enjoyed receiving the hearts of innocent young children as well. (All of this human flesh was then eaten by the people afterwards!) So this was one reason why the Spanish had no trouble conquering them. Not only did they find many allies amongst the suppressed people of Mexico, but when actually doing battle with the Aztecs, they were at a great advantage. Not only were their swords far superior to the wooden clubs of the Indians, but also the Aztecs were mainly interested in capturing living Spanish soldiers. Thus the 300 men of Cortés could beat huge armies, many times their numbers, suffering almost no casualties themselves. But the final conquest of Tenochtitlan was difficult. Is there any other example in the history of the world where a force of only a few hundred successfully besieged a fortified city, defended by hundreds of thousands of people?
    Were the Spanish then horrible oppressors of the conquered Indians? Certainly some of the worst people in Spain quickly made their way to "New Spain", looking for fast riches with no regard for anything else. Yet the decrees of Charles V show that official Spanish policy was quite enlightened. Soon, many of the provincial governors, and mayors of the large towns, were not Spanish, but rather native Americans. Numbers of Indians became members of the Spanish aristocracy in Spain itself. What a contrast this is with the fate of the Indians in North America! The original English settlers and their descendants set out on a policy of extermination which has left the United States, in particular, almost totally devoid of its original native population.
    How strange it is that today, the "white" people of the United States - the descendants of the exterminators of the past - pretend that they are the representatives of a tradition of enlightenment, where "all men are equal". And at the same time, they look down on the Spanish, or the Dutch in South Africa, as being dreadful oppressors. The difference is that the English simply killed all the people which they didn't want to be associated with. This contrast between the English and the Spanish experiences in America is so great that one wonders how the usual "politically correct" view ever arose! Davies advances two points to explain the paradox. For one, the protestant church of northern Europe was doing all it could to defame the catholic south. Thus we are now left with the triumph of a rather falsified protestant history. But also, some of the earliest Spanish people to reach Mexico - in particular Bishop Bartolomé de Las Casas - were anxious to avoid the evils which had accompanied the conquest of Cuba and Hispaniola. So they wrote many very angry letters to Charles V, complaining of various abuses. And these letters are gleefully quoted by the falsifiers.

Agnes Grey, by Anne Brontë

    For me, this was a much better book than Jane Eyre, which was written by her sister Charlotte Brontë. As far as I understand it, the Brontë sisters grew up in circumstances not unlike the story of this book. Their father was the curate of Thornton (a place in England), so his family lived simply, with little money. I suppose some of the sisters - Anne included - then became governesses to the children of extremely wealthy people, living in their enormous houses, being considered as inferior people who should be grateful to be allowed to live with them. Charlotte made a silly, overblown romance out of this business. But Anne wrote a more straight-forward, level-headed account. The characters are believable. And we even come to sympathize with these wealthy aristocrats. After all, you would think that a Lord, or a Lady of a mansion with vast areas of landscape and countless servants would be a happy person. But clearly, on the whole, they were unhappy people.
    So this book shows what such a life must have been like in those days. The governess becomes totally isolated from the world. She is expected to be present, at the call of duty, at any time of night or day. The children are spoiled brats. Yet she is not allowed to punish them, or exercise any discipline whatsoever, since the mother of the house - Lady Blah Blah, whoever it is - thinks her children are the most perfect and admirable specimens ever to have blessed the earth. The fact that they are obviously brats is then attributed to the faults and bad character of the poor governess.
    This whole dreadful situation seems to me to resemble, perhaps in a rather exaggerated way, the situation of schoolteachers in the present-day schools of Europe, or at least those of Germany. As with the spoiled aristocracy of 19th century England, the parents are often preoccupied with seeking their own fulfillment or "development" . Such parents might then imagine that since they lead such a fulfilling life, it follows that their children must have had all advantages imaginable. Given this, any imperfection must then be caused by something else, and the obvious place for blame is the school.
    Therefore it is a total mystery to me that so many students these days are studying to become teachers. Perhaps some of them will be able to cope with it. But for the rest, I can only wish them the agreeable resolution from this fate which Agnes Grey had the good fortune to experience!

The Professor, by Charlotte Brontë

    I was curious to see what this one was all about. Perhaps the professor was somebody like Ada Lovelace, or Sofia Kovalevskaya. Or even Bartold Kuijken, who is a great, real-life professor of music in Brussels, where this story takes place. But no.
    Charlotte Brontë originally called the book The Master, yet after her death it was posthumously published with this other title: The Professor. The hero of the book is not a true professor, but rather he is a simple schoolmaster. Of course if this book had actually been published as "The Master", then I suppose Colm Tóibín would have had to think of another name for his book. (It is interesting to remark here that the books which real professors assign to their students do not all have unique names. For example there are very many different books, by different authors, with the common title Linear Algebra.)
    In any case, I found the Preface which Charlotte Brontë wrote for this book to be extremely interesting, since it cleared up a number of thoughts I had about these books. Although this was the first book she wrote (at least in a serious way, for publication) she was unable to find a publisher for it. She writes:

I said to myself that my hero should work his way through life as I had seen real living men work theirs—that he should never get a shilling he had not earned—that no sudden turns should lift him in a moment to wealth and high station; that whatever small competency he might gain, should be won by the sweat of his brow; that, before he could find so much as an arbour to sit down in, he should master at least half the ascent of “the Hill of Difficulty;” that he should not even marry a beautiful girl or a lady of rank. As Adam’s son he should share Adam’s doom, and drain throughout life a mixed and moderate cup of enjoyment.

In the sequel, however, I find that publishers in general scarcely approved of this system, but would have liked something more imaginative and poetical—something more consonant with a highly wrought fancy, with a taste for pathos, with sentiments more tender, elevated, unworldly....

So, in order to write a book which could be published, sell well, and so make some money, she sat down and wrote all of that nonsense in Jane Eyre. This is like the situation of Hollywood today. The movie-going public expects "action". Every few seconds there should be someone screaming, cars crashing, bombs exploding, and what have you. Thank goodness a few films are still being made, far away from that Hollywood mess, which do not pander to the basest instincts in the human mind.
    In any case, we also see that the general appetite for coarse fare has not improved in the 150 years between the time this book was first published and the present. I have looked up the reviews of The Professor which people have written in Amazon.com, and I find that the general tone is: "A boring book; At least it shows the early development of Charlotte Brontë; Better to re-read her great Jane Eyre; But if you didn't like Jane Eyre all that much, then avoid this at all costs, since you will find this to be horribly tedious; The book shows that, unfortunately, in this instance, Charlotte Brontë let down the cause of feminism and womans lib; etc."
    Well, I enjoyed the book. It was a calm love story of two teachers in Brussels (where school teachers apparently were commonly referred to as "professors"). But these two characters were almost too good to be true. It seems obvious that in this book, Charlotte Brontë was describing her vision of an ideal marriage. Her idea of happiness was certainly very straight-laced. This must have been the idea which she had been constantly explaining to her young pupils during her time as governess to wealthy families. Unfortunately, her actual life did not live up to this ideal of happiness. All of her brothers and sisters died off quickly from tuberculosis, or whatever. She herself was able to live long enough to achieve marriage (after all, this is the theme of all these 19th century romances), but it seems it was not a particularly happy marriage. According to the entry on her life in Wikipedia, she hardly loved her husband, and her father advised her strongly against it. But she did go through with it, despite her continuing lack of affection for her husband. And then she died almost immediately of "tuberculosis". (I put in the quotes here since, according to the Wikipedia article, she may have died by feeling unwell during her pregnancy.)
    There is a very fine portrait of Charlotte Brontë in the Wikipedia article (the portrait of the hero's mother plays a big role in this book as well), and looking at it, I am glad that we can definitely say, on the basis of this book, that she was not simply the Steven Spielberg of 19th century literature.

Clear Light of Day, by Anita Desai

    What a wonderful book! It was first published in 1980 and, according to the short description inside the front cover, it was nominated for the Booker Prize. But why didn't it win? This book is so much better than anything else I have read for a long time. It is far and away better than any of the recent books which have won that prize! So I looked it up in the internet, to see what happened back then in 1980. The prize was won in that year by William Golding's Rites of Passage. Well, OK. Also a great book. But I think that if I had been sitting on the jury back then, then I would have preferred to vote for Anita Desai's book.
    What can one say? It is a story of a family in India. The story is not horrible in the way that The God of Small Things, or A Fine Balance were horrible. The family is living in Old Delhi, not New Delhi. It all takes place in the 1940s and 50s and 60s or so. There is the chaos and horror of Partition. But that does not intrude directly. It is only an influence. The family gradually falls apart, the parents die, the children go off into their own lives, leaving the eldest daughter, Bimla, alone with the mentally retarded Baba in the family house. There is so much in this book that it would be nonsense for me to write about it here. It is a whole world of characters, to live in and feel deeply about for a day or two of intense reading.

Trouble is my Business, by Raymond Chandler

    Lots of tough talk. This is a book of twelve short stories (about 40 or 50 pages each), published this year by the Folio Society. Apart from the last one, they were all written in the 1930s. The hero - or at least the protagonist - is not always the famous Phillip Marlow. Sometimes his name is Carmady. At other times it is Dalmas. But one constant figure is the policeman, Violets M'Gee, who gives our private detective (or "private dick", as he is continuously saying) new cases to become involved in. All of this tough talk, slang from the Los Angeles of those years, is sometimes difficult to follow. (Here is a useful dictionary for such things.)
   The life of the hero in these stories can only be described as being extremely unpleasant. He is an alcoholic, drinking three or four glasses of whiskey on almost every page. For relaxation, after having received a bloody blow to the head, or just to celebrate something or other, he drinks an additional pint of whiskey practically in one quick swill. And everybody else in these stories is also an alcoholic! Furthermore, all of them are chain smokers. The air is filled with choking smoke. For variation, the air is sometimes filled with the smoke of expensive cigars as well. All of this gives the hero the occasional headache, which he cures with a further swig of whiskey. Just thinking about this gives me a headache!
    The various kinds of guns which appear in these stories are not simply guns. They are Mausers, Colt Woodsmans, pearl-handled automatics, .45's, and what have you. As with the Eskimos, with their hundreds of words to describe different kinds of snow, we have here a celebration of the gun culture of the United States.
     When not being shot at, or knocked on the head, or talking tough with the other characters, he goes back to his lonely apartment to sleep it off. He is certainly not married. No real friends. And as with the men who appear in these stories, the women are degenerate, sleazy. But the difference is that the women are more the objects of depravity. So our hero fights his way through a brutal world, where all tender thoughts are twisted into cynicism. Life has nothing beyond the cold comfort he receives from his small fee, which he is more often than not too proud to accept.
    This brings us to the Life of the Author, which was described in the Introduction to the book. Raymond Chandler was, indeed, an American, being born in Chicago to an American father and an English mother. Yet the father "hit the bottle in a big way", divorcing the mother, who then took the young (7 year old) Raymond back to England. He didn't return to the United States until he was 31 years old (in 1919). He did well in the oil industry, and at the age of 35 he married the twice divorced Cissy Pascal, who was 53, in Los Angeles. But when he was 44, in 1932, he was fired from his job due to incessant drunkenness and weekend binges with various "girls". Thus, in order to survive, he started writing these stories. His wife must have been a very tolerant woman, since they stayed together, she dying in 1955, and he 4 years later in 1959. According to the Introduction, the rather warped and rigid sense of moral principles which Raymond Chandler demonstrates in these stories was instilled in him in the British Public Schools which he had the misfortune to attend.
    The first eleven stories in the book were written in the 1930s, but the last one, The Pencil, came out much later, in 1959. The style is quite different. It has mellowed. Marlow suddenly feels the need to explain himself, rather than just kicking people in the teeth! What has happened? In a short paragraph at the beginning of the story, Chandler explains that he had given up writing short stories since he thinks that books are his natural element. Yet he wanted to write a story about the true technique of the "Syndicate's" murders. The story is that the "Syndicate" (Who are they? The Mafia? The CIA? Dick Cheney? Who knows?) has decided to "pencil" Phillip Marlow. That is, in its business-like way, the Syndicate has a list of the various people in the world. Then if, for some reason, they decide to eliminate, liquidate, one of those people, they take this list, and take a pencil, and coolly draw a line through the offending name, as is done in any successful, well-run business. Well, fair enough. I have no experience of business, whether it be of what is apparently the "ordinary" kind, or that of the Syndicate. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the outcome of The Pencil is extremely unlikely, since Phillip Marlow out-smarts the Syndicate, and then retires smugly to the apartment of his girl-friend (which he is allowed to have in 1959). Surely, in real life, The Syndicate would not give up so easily, and instead it would pursue him to The End.
    I suppose that if "The Syndicate" is really just another name for the Powers That Be in modern - and not so modern - American society, then it is plausible to suppose that the official police force, employed by those Powers, is not particularly effective, at least in creating a calm and pleasant environment for people to live in. This would be the reason that Phillip Marlow has so much to do, fighting crime as a private detective. Is it true that in the real world of Los Angeles, and elsewhere, the private police are doing the real work, leaving the public police to become corrupt instruments of the Syndicate, as in these stories? Perhaps. Or do the private detectives of today confine themselves to their traditional area of expertise, peeping through keyholes in the hope of detecting adultery?
    Still, I enjoyed reading these stories. But as the author of the Introduction asks, what would Chandler think of the present-day state of Los Angeles, with all its hard drugs and racial violence?

The Master of Ballantrae, by Robert Louis Stevenson

    A family drama. Four people are living in the manor house of a Scottish estate in the year 1745: the old Lord Durrisdeer, his two grown sons, and a young woman. A crisis looms with the emergence of Bonny Prince Charlie. If Charlie wins, then one of the sons should have been fighting alongside him to ensure the continued existence of the Ballantrae Estate under the new Scottish regime. On the other hand, if he loses, the other brother should have stayed at home to demonstrate the loyalty of the House of Durrisdeer to the British Crown. This is perhaps the tragic situation of many people today in the various evil little conflicts which we must continuously read about in the newspapers.
    In any case, the two sons in this story find it difficult to agree about which one should go and which should stay. Eventually a coin is tossed, and it turns up that the elder son - the legitimate heir to the family title - goes to join Prince Charlie, and the younger one stays to look after the farm and the slave-like serfs who were bound to the land in those days.
    The elder brother, the family heir, is somewhat wild in his ways. So the young woman living in the house loves him and hopes to marry him when he returns gloriously with Prince Charlie. On the other hand, in his thoughtless, careless way, he has had various relations with some of the female family serfs, and one in particular has become pregnant, thus also experiencing a certain affection for him. In contrast, the younger, stay-at-home son is a model of sobriety and forthright, honest living.
    As it turns out, Bonny Prince Charlie is routed by the English, and it is reported that the elder son has died for Scotland, along with the small group of serfs who had been forced to accompany him as his serving foot-soldiers. When news of this fate reaches Ballantrae, the younger son is then perceived to be a coward in comparison with his glorious, dead brother, the Hero. The serfs, and in particular the disappointed female serf, go so far as to throw stones. How unjust it is that the lowly, disgraced second son is now in line to assume the family title. The old Lord Durrisdeer and the young woman of the house find it to be unpleasant, having to live under the same roof with this shirker. But after the stone-throwing business becomes generally known, the young woman decides to marry him out of pure pity. What a sad and sorry state he is in!
    Then, years later, it emerges that the first son hasn't died after all! He lives on in France, in heroic exile! He sends messages back home, demanding money. The messages are carried by smugglers with grand, meaningless, military titles, like "The Chevalier of the Order of St. Louis", and so forth. In reality, they are nothing more than the precursors of the modern football hooligans of today's Scotland.
    The younger son must now endure not only the stone-throwing and taunts of his serfs, the disdain of his father and his wife, but also he must organize the gradual financial ruin of the family estate, due to the exorbitant demands of the elder brother. He is too proud to complain, and thus everybody considers him to be a horrible miser as well!
    Eventually things become so bad that he refuses payment, and so the elder son suddenly emerges secretly, in the middle of the night amidst his rabble of hooligans, to hide gloriously at Ballantrae from his enemys, the English. What a recipe for trouble! It turns out that he is filled with evil. He hates his brother (notwithstanding the fact that the original choice was based on the unbiased flip of a coin). He plays a false game, twisting things so that truth becomes falsehood for no other purpose than to destroy his poor younger brother who is fated to retain the family title.
    A great story. Looking at the collection of ebooks and writings by Robert Louis Stevenson at the library of Adelaide University, I see that there are 38 books, and also further collections of essays, letters, etc. Yet I have only read 8 of them up to now. So there is no shortage of things to read in the future! Perhaps many people only think of Treasure Island, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But the rest are just as good, and they are as different from one another as Treasure Island is different from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Robert Louis Stevenson writes rings around many of these modern, but in comparison rather pathetic, best-seller authors!

Collapse, by Jared Diamond

    This is not a novel. Rather it is a kind of history of various peoples of the world, and the ways they have tended to destroy their natural environments. There are lots of interesting facts to think about here. The reader is encouraged to draw many broad generalizations, in fact going so far as to conclude that the only thing we have to know about history is the number of trees which a given civilization has destroyed, or conversely, let grow.
    Well, yes. I also like trees. Any person arriving at our little street here will immediately notice that the one house with lots of big trees around it, and also big trees in the garden, is ours! I am all for trees. But I'm afraid some of the neighbors view all of our plant growth in less than positive terms. We have the house with the "wild garden". Thus, according to Jared Diamond's way of thinking, they, the neighbors - as a civilization - are doomed to destruction.
    The book tends to jump around, describing the ways people live (or lived) at various times and places. It starts off with a description of modern-day Montana (a state in the USA). They have mountains which are nice to look at, but little rainfall. Thus farming is hard. They also have gold mines, and so on. Wall-Street tycoons paid people to go mining, extracting the ore using poisons like arsenic, and whatever, which they couldn't be bothered to clean up. So all the poisons remain in the landscape of Montana to make the people feel sick. And then the farmers cut down lots of trees to make room for cows, expecting the ground to remain fertile. It didn't. So the soil becomes eroded, and so forth. The result is that the farmers hate interference from outside - they are "conservative". They feel that the outside world is terrorizing them, therefore they form militias to protect themselves and to terrorize the outside world. They vote unanimously for George W. Bush, not being intelligent enough to realize that his Masters - namely THE SYNDICATE (in the way of thinking of Raymond Chandler) - are the evil ones behind all of this mess. To make matters worse, Charles Schwab, a Wall Street tycoon, has bought up large holdings in Montana, upon which he has built palace-like "cabins", thus constructing a razor-wire surrounded "gated community", where his rich cronies jet in to spend a few degenerate weekends each year, surrounded by armed guards. So the question is, will this all lead to a revolutionary collapse, in the same way that other civilizations of the past also collapsed? Who knows?
     Anyway, the book goes on to describe the situation on Easter Island, where the people cut down all the trees, leaving themselves with hardly anything to live from. It is shown that Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki theory, about the Incas colonizing the Eastern Pacific, was nonsense. Also a long section describes the Viking colony at Greenland. I hadn't realized that, actually, the two fjords where they lived are - geographically - well south of Iceland, which still hasn't collapsed. Nevertheless, even though they held out for 450 years, the Greenland Vikings were faced with extremely great problems. For one, they insisted on having a dairy agriculture. Yet cows were domesticated seven or eight thousand years ago in what is now the middle of the Sahara desert, at a time when it was not quite as dry as it is now. That is to say, cows are adopted to a warm, even a hot, climate. Forcing people to try to keep cows alive in Greenland is a certain recipe for collapse! The waters around Greenland are teeming with fish, yet for some obscure reason, it seems that the Vikings refused to eat fish. They could have asked the Eskimos how to survive, but for all sorts of reasons, they didn't do that. For them, the Eskimos (or Inuit) were mere "skraeglings", which was their word for dirt, uncleanness. If they came across a skraegling, they tried to kill it. Thankfully, the skraeglings killed them in turn, and so they died out. From the description in the book, the Viking civilization in Greenland was brutal, horrid, distorted through rigid religious principles.
    Then another section compares Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share that island in the Caribbean. Apparently Haiti has less land, more people, with a greater proportion of African ancestry, and less trees than the Dominican Republic. Diamond describes the reasons for all this. I suppose it all makes sense. He goes on to say that things are bad in Haiti despite the fact that it receives more "foreign aid" from the USA than does the Dominican Republic. So this is the "ecological" view of world politics. Perhaps it is superior to the other view which is particularly advocated by Amy Goodman on her program Democracy Now, which I often listen to via the internet. According to Amy Goodman, the true story is that the democratically elected Jean Bertrand Aristide is the embodiment of virtue, but the evil foreign aid (in the form of arms for the mafia-like killers of Haiti) of "The Syndicate" of the USA, which hates "people of color", forced Aristide out and has resulted in the collapse of the country. My mind is open as to which of these two versions of reality is more to be believed.
    His final candidate for collapse is Australia. There are indeed great environmental problems there. Little rainfall, salt in the soil, rabbits, and so on and so forth. In particular one can think about the cotton plantations dumping all their poisons into the headwaters of the Murry river system. He concludes that the most likely outcome for Australia is a slow collapse. Less likely is a rapid collapse, but totally unrealistic is the general perception of people in Australia today, that things will go on as ever, and even get better! Yet as he shows, agriculture plays a small, and decreasing role in the Australian economy. Mining is most important, and tourism comes next. Well, there is certainly enough coal and iron ore in Australia to keep things going till well beyond the time when Jared Diamond's theories become totally outdated. And the collapse of the agricultural sector could only be good for tourism, since most tourists prefer looking at the native bush, rather than all those unprofitable farms. Also, in a better world (hopefully the world of the future), all those evil people who are controlling "The Syndicate" will have disappeared into oblivion and thus people will be allowed to go about things in a more rational manner. For example, I can imagine that if people were to be allowed to substitute hemp for cotton, then many of the environmental problems of Australia would be solved. In any case, the hilly country along the east coast has lots of rich soil, and it is warm enough to support cows.
    Another point which struck me was the example of soil loss which Diamond describes. It is a church in Iowa in the USA, where the surrounding countryside lies 10 feet below the churchyard. The explanation is that the farmers washed away all their own soil, but were afraid to wash away that which surrounded the church. He says that all the non-church soil, presumably almost all of Iowa, has washed away, down the Mississippi and out to sea! But can this be true? Or is it some obscure local phenomenon? In contradiction to Diamond's hand-wringing about soil loss, we have the example of medieval towns in England (for example Shakespeare's Stratford upon Avon), where the surrounding countryside lies above the level of the historical town! This is explained by the (fact?) that soil accumulates with time. The old, large farmhouse, which is still occupied, near to our house here in Germany, has also existed for centuries, and the fields surrounding it have been farmed continuously for all that time. The level of the soil here is neither greater than, nor less than, the level of the farmhouse.
    In any case, this book does indeed show the importance of trees in the environment. I suppose that my rather flippant remark on the role of desertification in my review of The Persians, above, was somewhat off the mark. Probably the removal of the trees around Persipolis has caused the local climate there to become drier. Indeed, in addition to the many examples in this book, we see the effect at Mt. Kilimanjaro, where the decrease in precipitation - caused by people in the surrounding countryside cutting down all the trees - has caused the glacier to retreat. (Of course somebody should tell that silly Al Gore that the temperature at the top of the mountain remains continuously below freezing, and thus, despite his best efforts to generate additional hysteria, it has nothing directly to do with the average air temperature at the surface of the Earth!)
    But the question which, in the end, is the point of the book is whether or not our present, globalized civilization is on the point of collapse. I can think of a number of likely scenarios. For example, in the future all those people in the Amazon, Haiti, and so forth, who are cutting down and burning their trees may have a change of heart. At the present time (given the state of our garden in comparison to the other gardens in our neighborhood) it is obvious that I, as a lover of trees, am in a small minority. Most people prefer to get rid of trees. Burn them. What will happen if suddenly a majority of people also decide that trees are good? Trees will be planted everywhere, removing huge quantities of greenhouse gases from the Earth's atmosphere. They say that the next phase of the present ice-age epoch is well overdue, and I can imagine that this would be a strong trigger for such an effect, which would certainly cause great upheavals in human society.
    More realistically, at least in the short-term, is the possibility of global collapse caused by a massive blowing up of all the atomic bombs in the world. I was interested to see that the only voice in the recent "G8-Summit" meeting against the further expansion of the whole uranium-plutonium industry was that of the German chancellor. In fact, it seems to me that most of those people who are going on about "global warming" are doing so in the hope of expanding their "atomic" industries, which are not supposed to contribute to "global warming". But in the end, the things that ultimately come out of all this fiddling with uranium and plutonium are atom bombs, and it is most likely that they will be the means of a coming global collapse.

Harold and Maude, by Colin Higgins

    This is a short, rather crazy book; but it is a kind of craziness which was popular back then, 35 years ago, since a movie was made only a year after the book was first published in 1971. As with most paperbacks, this book had a number of quotes from reviews of the first - presumably hardcover - edition, but since the book was recommended to me by someone who might read my little review here, I am reluctant to agree with the quoted words of the reviewer of Playboy Magazine, who wrote that it was "cynically contrived pap".
    Back in 1971, the United States was concentrating itself on the small South East Asian country of Vietnam. Now, in the year 2006, it has switched its attention to the Middle, or Near Eastern Asian country of Iraq. The consequences for both of these countries have been dreadful. On the other hand, the consequences for typical readers of this book were different back then in comparison to the situation now. The problem was that in those days there was a draft, forcing young men against their will to go and kill lots of innocent people. In the present situation, with no draft, it is presumed - perhaps often falsely - that the American soldiers are doing it of their own free will.
    In any case, this book is full of rather morbid jokes on the subject of death. Also the 80 year old heroine constantly flaunts all authority, committing various felonies, then zooming off with stolen cars or motorcycles to avoid the police. While such an idea may have been amusing back in 1971, I wonder if such defiance of authority would be so sensible now, in the United States of 2006?
    Maude, the heroine, has a number tattooed on her arm - obviously a memento of time spent in a concentration camp. But how times have changed! I have the feeling that in present-day Germany, people are quite tolerant of crazy behavior, at least as long as one respects the given taboos. (It is namely the case that the use of any symbols of the Nazi era, or the expression of any views remotely similar to those of Gilad Atzmon, are most severely punished.) On the other hand, it seems that the tolerance and openness which used to characterize US American society has now been replaced by something more sinister, so that behavior which departs as strongly as this from the norm could no longer be thought of as being a subject of amusement.

Mount Everest: Expeditionen zum Endpunkt, by Reinhold Messner

    This one was given to me as a birthday present. I see that there is an English translation at Amazon, which I've given a link to here. The word "Endpunkt", in the German title, has been translated by the English language publisher into the word "ultimate". But even without knowing any German at all, any child can see that the obvious translation should be "Endpunkt = endpoint". I see that some of the amateur reviewers at amazon.com complain about the style of Messner's writings, thus docking him a star or two. But that is unfair. He has a very personal, emotional style, often putting more than one thought or feeling into a single expression. So I suppose much of this becomes "lost in translation", and out comes a dense, rather wooden text in English. Be that as it may, this is certainly the ultimate book about Mt. Everest. Lots of very clear, dramatic photos, showing exactly what the difficulties were which confronted Mallory, Hillary, and also Messner's own climbs. I think this book is almost as good as that great classic, Scrambles Amongst the Alps in the Years 1860-69, by Edward Whymper.
    For Whymper the problem was the Matterhorn. I had very vaguely clicked around the webpage of the Alpinschule-Oberstdorf, and seen that they also offered a guided tour to the top of that mountain. After all, the walk across the Alps had been fun. But then there was a program on TV, showing the hundreds of silly old men and Japanese tourists, clambering up the ropes strung up the Matterhorn. Such a crowd of egotists! Like a row of ants, one above the other, so close together that each one above was practically putting its foot in the face of the one below! Well, I see that now, very sensibly, the Alpinschule has removed the Matterhorn from their program. And as Messner describes it, the guided tour to Mt. Everest has almost degenerated to the same level as that to the Matterhorn. But despite this, both Whymper's, and Messner's books are well worth reading.
    There was also a program on TV about finding Mallory's frozen corpse a couple of years ago. People have even gotten very excited about the possibility of reconstructing his very clothing. So now you will be able to buy reproduction Everest clothing in the style of the 1920s, and you can adorn yourself with it, then go out for a walk on a winter's night, and imagine what Mallory felt just before he fell to his death! The TV program asserted that they still hadn't found the original Mallory camera, which would - maybe - prove that he had reached the top. And so the myth lives on! But Messner explains quite clearly what must have happened. Mallory and Irvine could not have reached the summit. The "Second Step" on the way to the top from the Tibet side was unclimbable. Today it is climbable owing to the fact that the Chinese built a ladder up the Second Step in 1975.
    As a student, back then in the early 1970s, I also had a very short encounter with rock climbing. There was a Polish mathematician in Canberra who was a keen climber, and he took me along with him a couple of times. He led and I followed behind, collecting the pitons which he had put into the rock face. I remember one climb in particular which I thought was very exposed. It was granite, with no real cracks to give a secure hold to the pitons (they should make a nice ringing sound under the hammer). The positions he found were hardly enough to hold the rope under its own weight. This was crazy! After the climb, he tried to convince me to go with him that summer on a climbing trip to New Zealand. But I resisted. Then later, after that summer, he told me that he had climbed with various people in the Southern Alps, but one after the other, they had become frightened, and had left him. I can well imagine what it was like!
    All of this seems to me to be not so long ago. But subtracting 1971 from 2006, I see it is now 35 years since that time. Some of the people in the climbing groups of those days talked about expeditions to the Himalayas, and Messner lists a few of their achievements in this book. Indeed, I was surprised to read that his first expedition to Everest - which was as late as 1978 - was the very first time any Austrian climber had climbed to the top. So the world of climbing has changed beyond all recognition in those 35 years! For example in the year 2001, the young Frenchman Marc Siffredi rode his snowboard down the entire north side of Everest, traversing parts of the mountain which had never been explored before! And he survived.
    So, at least if you avoid the guided tours, it has all become a fun, hip-hop sort of event. Something cool. On the other hand, both Whymper and Messner stand apart from all this good-natured entertainment. They are lonely men. At the moment of triumph they are empty. When the goal has been achieved they face the great problem of life: What else is there? Life becomes a problem in philosophy. This drives them on to ever new and greater goals, and a greater emptiness. According to this link, Messner is now a wealthy man, alternately living in his Castle in Northern Italy, and continuing his diverse adventures. But still, both of these men, with their driving energy, must have been very uncomfortable people to be with.

Memoirs of a Fighting Captain, by Admiral Lord Cochrane

    This book, which was recently published by the Folio Society, is a selection of writings from Cochrane's autobiography which first appeared in 1869. I see that amazon.com lists a paperback facsimile edition of the 1869 volume. However the editors of the present book have included a number of footnotes, correcting Cochrane's sometimes faulty memory, and putting his often exaggerated accounts of events into a more sober perspective. The Wikipedia article on his life is here.
    His exploits were the basis for the figure of Horatio Hornblower in the novels of C.S. Forester. Other authors have also based their romantic fighting heroes in the time of the great "Ships of the Line" on the life of Cochrane. Recently there was a most dramatic movie in this genre, starring Russel Crowe. But Lord Cochrane was a different figure than Russel Crowe. He was an elegant man. He was the Earl of Dundonald. His family had lost its money (his father, the 9th Earl, was a scientist who lost most of his means when attempting to establish factories in order to turn various new inventions into practical processes). Therefore the son, the invincible naval hero, began his career as a midshipman with no financial backing, although his title certainly did help him.
    After spending some years cruising along the east coast of the United States in the 1790s as a junior officer, learning the ropes and looking for French ships to attack, he graduated into the real fray of the Mediterranean in 1799. He soon was given command of a small sloop called the Speedy. Here he was able to display his true character. He was a man of decisive action who inspired his men to do almost impossible deeds. And they admired him. So in contrast to the goings on on many naval ships of those days, he had absolutely no problems with discipline. On the contrary, the seamen were glad to sail with him.
    His bravura and daring was breathtaking. This culminated in the capture of the El Gambo, a much bigger ship, and his promotion to Post-Captain and the command of the frigate HMS Pallas. The story goes from one episode to the next, way beyond any reasonable tempo in a believable work of fiction, and it culminated in the battle of the Basque Straits. The English fleet was led by a hesitant Lord Gambier who, in his dithering, had let the blockaded French fleet escape from Brest. So the admiralty in London summoned Cochrane, a mere Post-Captain, to ask him what to do. He organized a spectacular night-time display of exploding fire-ships which confounded the French fleet. They fled, or drifted, onto the sandbanks near Rochefort. Only the Impérieuse - Cochrane's new ship - was engaged in this initial action. The rest of the English fleet was forced to wait carefully in deep water, far away from danger.
    And thus he became the Hero of England, and he was elected to Parliament as a member for Westminster. But in Parliament he became a radical, openly and loudly denouncing the corruption in the British Navy and thereby creating many enemies for himself. Of course his audacity, as a mere Post-Captain, in single-handedly defeating the entire French Atlantic fleet at the Basque Roads had already made him many enemies amongst the higher ranks of the navy. Eventually he became involved in some stock-market affair (which he denied), and he became disgraced.
    He then was was asked by the newly-independent Chile to command their navy in their fight against the remaining Spanish outposts on the Pacific coast of South America. His dashing, decisive leadership led to sudden and unexpected victories. But he expected a modern democracy to develop out of this, in the style of the USA of that period. His disappointment with such leaders as General José de San Martin was such that he eagerly accepted the offer of a similar position as leader of the Brazilian Navy. And his exploits there were almost unbelievable. With nothing more than two serviceable ships - and his huge reputation - he tricked the entire Portuguese army and navy, which were then occupying northern Brazil, into surrendering and fleeing back to Portugal, practically without firing a single shot! If it had not been for this exploit of Cochrane, much blood would have been lost in the fight for Brazilian independence, and perhaps today, Brazil would have been two countries, the southern part around Rio de Janeiro, and northern part from Bahia up to the mouth of the Amazon.
    After his death and burial in Westminster Abby, The Times write in his obituary that "History can produce few examples of such a man or of such achievements... He was the idol of seamen and the wonder of the British navy." Although I have not read any of C.S. Forester's books, I can hardly imagine that such fiction can approach the true-to-life narrative of this book!

The Night Watch, by Sarah Waters

    The first thought might be that this book, which shares its title with that famous painting of Rembrandt, could have to do with the quaint goings on in Holland in the 17th century. But that is not the case. In fact, it is a book about lesbianism.
    Why is it that there seem to be so many books about male homosexuality, yet only few about that of females? Is this due to the fact that men are generally louder and more aggressive than women, and thus they tend to write more of these books? Or have I simply been unaware of this other branch of literature up till now?
    Anyway, the present book is set in the London of the 1940s, in three general episodes, working backwards in time: in 1947, then 1944, and finally a very short bit in 1941. The first part, in 1947, gives a very convincing and moving feeling of bombed-out London. The transience of things. How unfair it was that women who loved one another could not show this in public, and perhaps, as a result, their relationships were thus all too short-lived. Everything is temporary, things are falling apart.
    Then the main part of the book is in 1944. We see that the characters were ambulance drivers, typists, and so forth. Bombs are falling everywhere. War is horrible. Interspersed with this are scenes of conscientious objectors (who are, of course, men), existing in Wormwood Scrubs Prison. Therefore this is a war book, combining the themes of lesbianism, war, and prison.
    Well, OK. Given that life goes on both in peace as well as in war (and assuming that one survives), then I suppose one can write about all sorts of combinations of things like this. I see that Waters' earlier books were set in the 19th century, and they were also concerned with lesbianism, so it certainly is a legitimate idea for her to move the times of her various stories back and forth, from one book to the next. Nevertheless, I must admit that, at first, I found the combination of lesbianism and war to be somewhat irritating. I was asking myself: Is it really true that German bombers were reaching London as late as 1944, given the advances in radar and the domination of the Allied forces in the air at that period? Also, was Wormwood Scrubs Prison such a jolly, non-violent place in those days? Or was it - in common with what is apparently the case in the prison system of the USA today - a place where violent, racially related homosexual gang rapes are the continual order of the day? A place of fear and loathing.
    Well, I did find some accounts in the internet of the "mini" blitz of 1944 in London, so I suppose that part was, indeed, authentic. And then reading on - it is a rather long book at almost 500 pages - I gradually got into the whole idea of the thing.

    What is the world of women's love for one another? Indeed, what would it be like to be a woman? How should I know? But it does seem to me that women are the better half of humanity, and so I can hardly understand what some (even most?) women can see as being attractive in men. Surely women are much more lovable than men.
    Given this, then it makes sense to show just how horrible men are. What better setting is there for this than the horror of war? The few men in this book (at least the ones who are not the jolly homosexuals in prison) are dreadful. Married men spend all their time shouting at their families, bullying any son who shows the slightest reluctance to become a soldier. They snore loudly at night. They produce unpleasant fluids. The younger ones continuously threaten innocent, defenseless women. The climax of the book takes place during a night of intense bombing. Waters describes the cylinder-like German bombers, thrusting their way through the moonlit sky over London, filled with little men, like little seeds of evil. The one poor female - Vivien - who is not lesbian, comes to experience the consequences of her actions. She becomes pregnant by that unfeeling male, Reggie. She is sick all the time. Vomiting. Left alone. She must go to a dentist who does abortions at night. This is totally sickening. She bleeds uncontrollably from a punctured womb. How horrible. The whole unpleasant business with these babies is contrasted with the pure physical love and the beautiful passionate bodies of the two lovers, Helen and Julia. But thankfully, that poor silly Vivien is rescued by the heroic Kay in her ambulance, putting her back onto the true path of caring and love.

    So I think it is a good thing that these days, people who love other people of the same sex can do so openly. And from a purely practical point of view, it is surely a very civilized and sensible thing to do. After all, without the burden of children, people are very much better off in all sorts of ways. Furthermore, it is obvious that most of the environmental problems of the world are caused by overpopulation.
    Therefore the question is, how can we stop people from producing all these superfluous babies? One solution is offered by China, where it is illegal to have more than one. But surely that is a brutal, unpleasant method.
    How much more subtle and effective is the strategy which we find here, in present-day Europe! On the one hand, it is said that people should have more babies in order to provide people with their old-age pensions, and so on. This is their duty to society. But on the other hand, the costs of having babies - from kindergarten through to university - are relentlessly increased. Furthermore, children are considered to be loud, unpleasant creatures which disturb the normal functioning of society. Marriage is thus a very questionable proposition in modern-day Europe. In contrast, homosexuality is everywhere accepted as a much more sensible and enjoyable alternative.
    The result of all this is that Europe has, happily, been much more effective in controlling its birthrate than has China. Seen in this light, such books as The Night Watch must have a very positive influence on society.
    But unfortunately I must admit that while I do admire these high moral principles of Sarah Waters, I am afraid that I do not practice them. In fact, despite everything, I am looking forward to a wedding which I will participate it in a few days time. My role will be to play Mozart's KV 315, accompanied by the organ, in a romantic old church. This will be my small contribution to another form of love.

Wake in Fright, by Kenneth Cook

    Browsing around the university library, I saw that there is a small section devoted to contemporary Australian literature. This one caught my eye. It seems that the book has been translated into various languages, and it was the basis for a film, whose title outside Australia was The Outback. It was even a prescribed text for schools in Australia.
    The story is that a young school teacher - John Grant - has just gotten his teaching degree, and as a condition of his stipendium, he must spend two years teaching at a one-roomed school in the far outback. He hates it. He dreams he is back in civilized Sydney, being together with the unobtainable Robyn, his secret love. It is now the long Christmas (summer) vacation, and he has his pay check and the few additional pounds he has saved in his pocket, and he is heading, thankfully, back to Sydney for a month and a half of relief, where he can finally wash the heat and dust of the outback out of his system. His path to Sydney involves a train journey from Tiboonda (which consists of the "hotel" - that is, the outback pub with rooms upstairs, which is his home - plus his primitive school) to Bundayabba, a town of a few ten thousand inhabitants, known commonly as "The Yabba". He plans to spend the night there in a hotel, then catch a plane to Sydney.
    But he doesn't make it to Sydney. He is "caught" in the Yabba! Apparently Kenneth Cook modeled his image of The Yabba on the very real Australia town of Broken Hill. In fact, BHP (the Broken Hill Proprietary Company) is Australia's largest company, and it is listed on the major stock exchanges of the world. So Broken Hill is a mining town in the hot, dusty west of New South Wales. For relief, the inhabitants drink lots of beer. Being so isolated geographically, the locals are easy-going and try to avoid conflicts, often settling things with a drink at the pub. Here is a link to the Broken Hill website.
     John Grant takes a room in a hotel, then goes downstairs to the pub to have a drink himself. He meets a policeman who, while being on duty, shares a few beers with him (the policeman gets his beers free - at least when he is on duty!) He takes him around to the local "2-up school", a primitive form of betting, just flipping a coin and seeing if heads or tails comes out, which is practiced in the outback. (You won't find the 2-up game offered in the casinos of Las Vegas, since, being so simple, it offers no possibility for the house to make a profit.) The policeman checks him in at the door, since the locals are wary of trouble-making journalists from Sydney, coming and stirring up trouble. (Of course the 2-up game, as well as late-night drinking in the pubs, was illegal. Thus the function of the Broken Hill police was to protect the local culture from all the interfering do-gooders from the Big City.)
    Thus John Grant loses all his money. He is then "broke", a common experience in The Yabba. He gets in a panic. But soon he is picked up the next morning in the pub by Tim Hynes, a fellow who buys him one beer after the other. Already drunk, he is taken home to the Hynes place where he is fed bottle after bottle, occasionally mixed with something stronger. Mrs. Hynes serves dinner. Two muscular employees of Hynes, Dick and Joe, join the party and increase the pace of the drinking. Feeling sick, John Grant is led out into the dusty moonlight by Janette Hynes, the daughter, whose dress soon falls into the dust to reveal a panting female body. But Grant can only vomit. He awakes the next morning, feeling sick, in a shed which is inhabited by the alcoholic Doc Tydon, who himself is continuously broke, and thus is supported by the non-broke inhabitants of The Yabba. Tydon tells him that the best thing for a hang-over is flat beer. And thus begins another alcoholic day, which culminates in a wild, drunken, night-time kangaroo hunt, with Dick and Joe in a car with a floodlight, slaughtering everything in sight.
    Waking up the next morning, Grant decides to escape from The Yabba by hitch-hiking. But he ends up back in The Yabba by mistake. He concludes that the only way out is suicide, and so he shoots himself in the head, but half misses, only blowing out a bit of his skull. He wakes up in the hospital, where people treat him kindly. Suicide is also illegal, but the understanding policeman has already written out a sensible statement for him to sign, stating that his gun fell to the ground, exploding unexpectedly, etc. And so he returns to his teaching job in Tiboonda, having learned something about life in the far outback of Australia.
    In the Introduction to the book, it is said that The Outback - the movie based on the book - had the effect of setting the Australian tourist industry back 20 years.

The Lady and the Unicorn, by Tracy Chevalier

    Somehow I seem to find these books by Tracy Chevalier when on trips away from home. My copy of Falling Angels came from a small news agents shop in a town on the North Coast of New South Wales. Then I bought this present book last week in the bookshop at Luton Airport, north of London.
    (For any other travelers thinking of buying books there while waiting for planes, let me tell you that although I bought this at the shop downstairs, it is a better idea to first go through all the x-ray machines, allowing yourself to be patted down by the armed guards, and into the "holding zone" to wait for your plane upstairs, since there is a much larger bookshop in that zone. And in any case, the fact that I am writing this review proves that, thankfully, the Protectors of this Holding Zone were successful in thwarting any evil terrorists from coming through and blowing us up with a tube of toothpaste!)
    Anyway, this book is concerned with an earlier phase of human experience, when even more terrorists were at large than is the case at the present time. Namely the years 1490-92. And in particular it is concerned with a set of six tapestries which are in the Musée National du Moyen Age in Paris. As in The Girl With a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier imagines how this work of art may have been created. She doesn't fill her books with the heavy-handed verbiage of the art historian. Instead, she imagines what things really might have been like back then. And through her story, we look at more and more details of these tapestries, and gradually we agree that indeed, it could have been something like that. (Her website, which I have linked to above, contains pictures of all these tapestries.)
    Surely it is true that the artists of those days were generally illiterate. They did not consume themselves in complicated questions of philosophy. Therefore their works are more human. They speak to us more directly than the often all too "deep", yet in the end silly and trivial works of modern artists. The language is more earthy, true to life. These books of Tracy Chevalier let us imagine what life was like in earlier times. These days, the impulses of our thoughts travel around the world in a split second through the internet. But in 1490 it took a week or more for news to travel from Brussels to Paris. And even months for news to travel from Rome to London. Past all those wild terrorists!

The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth

    The reason I've read this book is that it is the next one for our discussion group. We read his earlier book The Human Stain a while ago, but frankly I didn't share the enthusiasm some people had for that book. Judging from the few books of his which I have read, it seems to me that his usual style is to take the normal human weaknesses which we all have and to turn them into something sleazy, something deserving of a cynical laugh. Even in this book, whose theme is certainly very different from that of The Human Stain, or indeed of Portnoy's Complaint, he manages to include a small boy - named Philip Roth - peeping into the slimy cellar of his house and observing his cousin Alvin, propping himself up on the stump of the leg he had lost as a soldier, and masturbating onto the cement wall. Afterwards, little Philip examines the gooey mess. Contrast this with the scene described (if I recall it correctly) in the book You Must Be Joking Mr. Feynman, where the person I would certainly choose to be a hero, that great physicist Richard Feynman, is a young graduate student at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. He is always joking, always playing with new thoughts, testing ideas to see if they are true or not. A debate ensues concerning the properties of human semen, and so to settle the matter, Feynman disappears into his room and returns shortly with a sample to be examined under the microscope.
    But to return to the present book, the idea of the Plot against America is to imagine what would have happened if Charles Lindbergh were to have become President of the U.S.A. in 1940. Well, OK. Given that George W. Bush is the current holder of this position, I am prepared to imagine all sorts of other people there as well! The actual PLOT referred to in the title is the following extraordinary conspiracy theory. According to "mainstream" history, the Lindbergh's baby Charles was kidnapped in 1932, perhaps by Bruno Hauptmann, a German living in America. Later a decomposed baby body was found in the woods and Hauptmann was executed for the crime. On the other hand Roth's conspiracy theory is that the baby Charles was, in fact, not killed by that horrible Bruno Hauptmann, but rather he was abducted to the evils of Hauptmann's Germany and there held captive. Thus the Germans could blackmail the father - the Hero of Aviation - into doing anything they wanted. And what they wanted was to get him to become President of the U.S.A. for them. They, that is to say the Gestapo, the SS, and what have you, had no trouble organizing the Republican Party in such a way that their wishes were fulfilled, and so Charles Lindbergh became their mouthpiece, saying whatever they wanted him to say. According to the Wikipedia article which I have linked to above, it is said that Philip Roth denies any possible analogies with the present situation in the White House. Fair enough!
    But going beyond the implausibilities of this imagined conspiracy theory involving Charles Lindbergh, the main part of the book really seems to be concerned with a description of the (perhaps mostly imagined) childhood of the author in New Jersey. Well, as a matter of fact, I spent the first 18 years of my life in New Jersey. We lived in Summit until I was 10 or 11 or so, then we moved down to Long Beach Island on the coast. Much of the action in this book takes place on Summit Avenue. My father grew up in Passaic. However the world of New Jersey which I have spent the last day or two reading about in this book diverges to such a degree from the world of New Jersey which I experienced, growing up in the 1950s, that I wonder which of us - I or Philip Roth - is suffering from a state of total hallucinations!
     Philip Roth's New Jersey is an apartheid state. The "townships", or "homelands" in this apartheid regime are where the Jewish people live. They have their own segregated schools and so forth. No non-Jewish people live in their township. On the other hand, they have a horror of leaving the township. The fact that the people "outside" want to be friendly only makes these "goyem" more repulsive to them.
    Well, I have recently been told by a friend who still has many contacts with New Jersey that Philip Roth's world is not such an hallucination after all. He tells me that Summit is sort of "out of things" since both Jewish and also non-Jewish people live there. Perhaps that is the reason for my naïve and innocent memories. But for whatever it is worth, I can only say that the idea of whether various given people were of Jewish, or of non-Jewish ancestry played absolutely no role whatsoever in my memories of those times. Undoubtedly some of my school friends must have been in one category or the other, but that had nothing to do with us. If anything, the main religion which counted in the U.S.A. of those days was the religion of Money. One thing I do remember was that when I was in high school, some students performed the play The Diary of Anne Frank. It was done with such conviction that we were all overwhelmed and speechless afterwards. Therefore this atmosphere which Philip Roth describes, where everybody outside the "townships" is just waiting for the opportunity to go in and perform a "pogrom" makes no sense at all to me. In reality there was, and is today, a great racial divide in New Jersey. That is between white and black. And in this divide, the Jewish people are on the white side of the fence.
    Finally, of course, this book is concerned with the Nazis of Germany in the 1930s and 40s. I was reluctant to read the book at first since I had the impression that Philip Roth was merely cashing in on the "holocaust industry", to use the phrase of Norman Finkelstein. But after reading it, I see that this isn't really true. And in any case this whole theme is packed with so many taboos that I wanted to avoid going into it.
    Still, it does raise the question about how it was possible that all those horribly unspeakable things were done in Germany in those days. To answer this question, we have the "Hollywood version" of reality. Up until a few years ago, I saw no reason to question it. But now, in this new millennium, another country which we had thought to be sensible and civilized has started descending into the practice of torturing people. It has set up secret concentration camps in an archipelago of terror, directed against a supposed racial minority. And the Hollywood version of this country is very obviously absurdly false.
    I would certainly hesitate to cite anything other than a person of Jewish background in connection with this theme. Thus I will simply say that the books of Lenni Brenner, referred to in this article in the Wikipedia (he has placed his first two books online to be read freely over the internet) deal with these questions. Reading the many documents from that period which Brenner includes in his books, one sees that the quotations of Charles Lindbergh which Philip Roth makes so much of only make sense in relation to other quotations which Roth did not bother to put into his book.

Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami

    A strange, wonderful book. The last two books of Murakami which I read seemed to be more autobiographical - even if they weren't. But this one goes beyond all that. There are so many ideas in it that I won't even try to summarize the plot. It is a book of dreams mixed with reality. Like dreams which, when going to bed, pick up where you left off last night. Strange ideas. Sexual fantasies. The hero, Kafka Tamura, finds a passage to the woodland village at the entrance into heaven. But he is sent back to our world by the woman he loves, Miss Saeki.
    The world of dreams also has nightmares, and there are a fair share of those in this book as well. Particularly disturbing was Johnny Walker - the figure from the whiskey bottle - who in this book is a killer of little cats. He cuts out the tiny beating hearts and eats them, before cutting off the cats heads. He is gathering their souls in order to make a flute. Perhaps the Flute of Death. But before he is finished (or maybe he does have enough cats souls already), he is killed by Mr. Nakata, an old man who had lost his mind in a bizarre episode as a child many years before. On the other hand, Mr. Nakata can talk to cats, and he can find the Entrance Stone.
    It is often thought that the flute is a symbol of joy, of pleasure. But in the music of Bach it sometimes portrays the sweetness of death. A year or two ago we went to a weekend get-together at the
Schola Cantorum Basiliensis - or music school in Basel - where there was a kind of conference concerned with the renaissance flute. I particularly enjoyed the talk given by Ardal Powell, who explained the role of the transverse flute in the late middle ages. It was the innovation of the Swiss, even those of Basel, to group their foot soldiers tightly around a pipe and drum, the music of which gave a tempo and direction to their progress. This formation was so successful that they achieved famous victorys over the cavalry of Burgundy at the battles of Grandson and Morat, defeating Charles the Bold. So I suppose many, many soldiers have passed into death to the shrill sounds of the military pipes. According to Praetorius, the Swiss pipes had a bore like that of a pistol. Be that as it may, the musical flute has a larger, more sensual bore. It is not something which needs the cruelness of a cat's heart.

Inspector Morimoto and the Japanese Cranes, by Timothy Hemion

    So this is the next book in the Inspector Morimoto series of Timothy Hemion. Since I had bought the last ones via amazon.com, they sent me an email to say that this one had just come out. It took amazon a couple of weeks to deliver it, and so, in anticipation, and to get into the right mood, I read Murakami's book which is reviewed above. Indeed, the last scene of that story is that Kafka Tamura, in the process of transporting himself from the island of Shikoku back to Tokyo, transfers onto the bullet train at Okayama station, to then arrive slightly tearfully back in Tokyo. It was not said that Kafka met either Inspector Morimoto or Detective Suzuki during this brief stopover.
    Anyway, the present book involves, at the beginning of the story, a break-in at a bird research facility near Okayama. Strangely, the thieves seem to have put more money into the safe than was there beforehand. This is a behavioral pattern seldom seen amongst thieves. Thus the question is, how is it to be explained? While the reader wonders about all this for chapter after chapter, Morimoto and Suzuki enjoy themselves at various expensive restaurants, engage in seemingly irrelevant banter between themselves and also with the other characters, such as the Chief of Police of Okayama, and only gradually do they get down to the business of finding out what happened. In the end, on the basis of a rapid series of events at the end of the book, it turns out to be rather obvious. It was a nasty case of academic plagiarism.
    One chapter of banter involved Inspector Morimoto recalling that during the previous evening's TV news, it was said on the weather report that the chance of rain the next day would be 50%. So Morimoto and Suzuki speculate on the meaning of this statement. Could it mean that 50% of the meteorological area which is covered by the weather report will experience rain on that day? Or what? What if it doesn't rain anywhere? Does that mean that the statement that the probability of 50% was wrong? Or does it mean that you are never sure what's going to happen, and that was the meaning of the 50% "probability". And so on. They conclude that the statement was meaningless.
    Now it is also true that our local newspaper has a similar statement in each morning's edition. For example, today's paper said that there would be 5 hours of sunshine and a 30% chance of rain. I am writing this in the evening, so I can definitely say that it was a typical, dreary, gray autumn day today, with zero hours of direct sunlight and also zero rain.
    We have often speculated about the meaning of these assertions. Shouldn't they say
that the sunshine is 50% (assuming that there are 10 hours between dawn and sunset), rather than saying that they expect 5 hours of sunshine? Also does 30% refer to the time it will probably rain, or are they referring to the simple event that it rains at all on that day? And what is the role of "probability" here. As Suzuki says, the concept of probability is meaningless when it comes to describing unique events. Probability can only be used to test hypotheses. For example, the hypothesis that the TV weather presenter is accurate when making his 50% rain forecast can be tested by looking at all the days he had made that prediction and then seeing if it did actually rain on 50% of those days, give or take some margin of error.
    What does this have to do with the break-in at the Japanese Crane Place? Could it be that Timothy Hemion conceived this book as being an amusing and rather biting satire on present-day academic life? This banter about weather probabilities is precisely analogous to the famous "paradox" of Schrödinger's cat. And yet, incredible as it may seem, even today, countless professors of physics who are employed in the various universities of the world pretend that this is a real paradox! It is also equivalent to the famous "EPR paradox". Indeed, the reality of today's world is that it does happen that distinguished professors of physics travel to pleasant, exotic, expensive resorts where they have a conference on the "EPR paradox", spending their time in pseudo-French restaurants, engaging in trivial banter, observed by the exotic birds in the real world of nature outside. I suppose that some of these professors are not above plagiarizing the meaningless ideas of their neighbors!

The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai

    Just finishing this book, I feel as one sometimes feels when walking out after a movie - drained, speechless. (Although they seldom make movies like that any more!) The book is not unlike her mother's Clear Light of Day. About a family in India disintegrating. Yet this book describes the situation near to the end of that process. There is little dignity left.
    The story takes place in Kalimpong, which is a town in India, a bit north of Darjeeling. So here I've given you a link to the first entry which appeared in Google, after typing in the word "Darjeeling". Kalimpong does not bring up so many possible internet pages. This was the first one in that list. As we see, both places are great if you want to book a trekking tour. They offer "an incredible stunning backdrop of towering snow capped peaks", etc. However, it seems that the people of Kalimpong are unhappy with Kiran Desai for writing this book, since it is definitely not written in the gushingly positive style of the tourist brochure!
    I found it helpful to examine the atlas when reading the book. Darjeeling and Kalimpong lie in a curious geographical situation. I suppose it must be that hundreds of years ago, before the arrival of the English, the land of India was split up into many smaller countries, one fighting against the other. Then the English conquered them all, resulting in a unified country composed of many different peoples, all subject to the power of European colonialism. That was finally defeated by Gandhi, but it resulted in the bloody separation of the land, between India and Pakistan. Up against the Himalayas, we have Sikkim and Bhutan. Then a little to the west is Nepal. All of this separates a large bit of India from the rest of it by an absurdly narrow corridor up around Darjeeling. I suppose, before all this separation, Darjeeling was just a nice mountain resort, with lots of good tea. Therefore well-to-do colonialists, and rich Indians, built themselves comfortable chalets up there to enjoy the views and to live on in the healthy mountain air into retirement.
    On the other hand, the natives of this place were not well off. They are the Gurkhas. (But it seems that the word is now spelled "Gorkhas". That is similar to the fact that the place we had always thought of as Bombay is actually "Mumbai".) Anyway, those who follow the tradition of British mercenaries know that the Gurkhas were very effective at keeping things under control in the other British colonies, with their deadly, curved knives. Thus, in the period of this book - the 1980s - they rebel against the fact that they are the lowly under-caste in their own country.
    Kiran Desai describes this situation, in all its facets. It is not a nice, pleasant story to read. But it is also not simply an attempt to shock the reader with stories of horror, which is a common way to deal with such subjects these days. One really does get into the ways of thinking of the various characters, understanding their thoughts.
It is said that Kiran Desai took seven years to write this book, and when reading it, the care she has put into the words becomes very clear. It is so different from the slap-dash style of many other writers.
    The book won this year's Booker Prize. According to the Guardian article which I have linked to above, the bookies of England had only placed it 5th amongst the 6 short-listed books. The odds-on favorite was Sarah Waters' The Night Watch, which I read a couple of months ago. So it seems that the betting public of England, in their uncaring way, were putting their money on the equation "Lesbianism = The Greatness of the Battle of Britain", as if we non-English people really care about such things.
    The thing that I find difficult to understand is that it was reported that Kiran Desai's mother, Anita Desai, who was three times short-listed, but never awarded the prize, was terribly nervous before the announcement of the winner. She turned off the radio and TV, unable to stand the suspense. But why? This book shows how the Indians were submerged under the suffocating snobbery of the English. One of the characters is the retired judge who had been sent to Cambridge from India, where he lived a pitiful life of groveling as a student, then upon his return to India as a member of the Indian Civil Service, he tried to be more snobbish than the English themselves! And for this, he was despised both by the English and by his fellow Indians. So who cares about this Booker Prize of the English? Well, it is certainly good for selling the book. And I wouldn't have known about the book in the first place if it wasn't for the prize. But in the end, the thing that counts is that it is simply a great book.

On Beauty, by Zadie Smith

    A couple of years ago I read White Teeth - Zadie Smith's first book - and enjoyed it so much that I immediately read the next one, The Autograph Man. But unfortunately that was the end of her published books. Somewhere I read that she had gone to the United States to visit some small-town college and take part in a creative writing course - as a student! This bit of news seemed to me to be so absurd that I dismissed it as probably being as false as much of the rest of the nonsense we read about in the papers or on the internet. So I was looking forward to reading her third book, which I have now gotten around to doing.
    If Autograph Man had something to do with her life (as a famous author, she must have had the curious experience of strange people asking her for her autograph), then I suspect that On Beauty is even more concerned with thinking about such things. Each of her books has a portrait of the author inside the back cover, and clearly, Zadie Smith (along with Kiran Desai) is a beautiful woman. Furthermore, the story in this book is concerned with the goings-on in an imagined small-town college near Boston where two professors of art - that is to say, professors of beauty - live out their conflicts with one another and the problems caused by their obsessions with beautiful women.
     At first the book smothers us with the rigid, politically correct ways of thinking which people are undoubtedly forced to adopt in such a small-town college. I began to think that Zadie Smith herself had decided to abandon her true style and replace it with the creative writing style of small-town "liberal" America. What a shame that would be! But reading on, we find that she has just been provoking us. She allows her true style to shine through to illuminate the whole situation.
    One of the professors - the one nearest to us - is a white Englishman who is married to a black American woman, Kiki. She is portrayed as being big, fat. They have been married for 30 years. Howard, this white professor, sees beauty in humor, in questioning accepted values. He is devoted to Kiki, but his sense of beauty gets the better of him and he has an affair with a woman colleague of 30 years standing. Even worse, he is infatuated with the daughter of his great enemy, the black professor, Monty Kipp. Victoria. She is Howard's downfall in a beautifully described episode in London.
    The black professor is also from England, although he originally came from the West Indies. He turns out to be a hard-core, evil, neo-con. And - in contrast to those two pathetic real-life examples of more or less black neocons, namely Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice - he really believes it! While Howard, the white professor, is seduced almost against his will in a short, intense episode by the beautiful Victoria, Monty, the black professor, forces himself into the poor, defenceless, disadvantaged Chantelle, a beautiful black student who is very much dependent upon him.
    All of this is really not very funny, so I could not understand the quotes of the various reviews of the book which the publishers put on the back cover of this paper-back edition. What do these newspaper reviewers think when they write "A rollicking satire", or "A dazzling comedy", etc? Do they really read these books? I can hardly believe it.
    In fact the book is rather sad. It is a meditation on the quality of beauty and the fact that this quality is not always such a wonderful thing to have. But still, despite the fact that Zadie Smith has it in abundance, I am sure that she will avoid these pitfalls.

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

    This book consists of six more-or-less linked stories, jumping through time into the future, and then back to the past. The first one is concerned with an American accountant, or notary, from New York who is sent to Sydney in about 1850 to deal with some financial business. But in the story, he has reached the Chatham Islands where the original inhabitants, the Morioris, peaceful people, are being driven to extinction by the more aggressive Maoris from New Zealand and also the European whalers making station at the Islands. The story is, like all the others in the book, depressing, showing the depravity of human nature.
    The second story jumps forward to 1930 or so, where a somewhat degenerate young musician  attaches himself to a still more degenerate old musician. According to Mitchell's Acknowledgments at the end of the book, this episode is based on the book Delius: As I Knew Him, by Eric Fenby. Thus it is, as is the Chatham Island episode, based on factual research by the author. The character in this book is not named Eric Fenby, but rather he is named Robert Frobisher. During his stay with the degenerate old musician, he himself writes a piece of music called The Cloud Atlas Sextet. Therefore, just as most music consists of linked episodes, this book does too. In fact, I suppose the book is rather musical in nature. Therefore one can say that - in contrast to the silly attempts of some other authors who seem to have lost contact with reality - this book does, indeed, represent a sensible description in literature of certain kinds of music.
    Skipping forward to the two episodes in the middle, we enter the World of the Future. The first future episode takes place in Korea. (It seems that the USA has already collapsed into the oblivion of its neocon dreams by this stage, having managed to kill off not only all the Arabs in the world, but also all of the inhabitants of the USA itself, except for those in Hawaii.) We find ourselves in the person of Sonmi-451. She is the 451st clone of the original Sonmi, who must have been a real person. But all of these clones (and also other ones, such as Yoona-939, etc.), have been genetically altered to make them into mindless, obedient servants who, in this instance, are waitresses in a McDonalds kind of food chain in Asia. (Unlike the McDonalds of the present epoch of world history, this food chain of the future serves its customers hamburgers which are not made from the beef of cattle, but rather they are made from the meat of its own dead cloned waitresses!)
    The middle episode of the book, which projects us the furthest into the future, is concerned with an isolated pocket of degenerate human existence which subsists on the Big Island of Hawaii. We seem to have returned here to the Chatham Island of the beginning of the 19th century, where the defenseless inhabitants are subject to the depraved attacks of more violent neighboring tribes. Then the book winds back through each episode to the beginning, showing us at each stage ever more facets of the depravity of the human condition.
    Despite the relentless pessimism of this book, I still continued to read it, even enjoying the experience. Mitchell has created a totally different language for each episode. This in itself is a remarkable achievement. On the other hand, I must admit that much of it does not ring particularly true. For example, the imagined author of the Chatham Island Journal, Adam Ewing, is supposed to be a New York notary from the middle of the 19th century. Yet this writing is more like that of an 18th century English missionary. Surely a Yankee lawyer would know better than to constantly refer to Polynesians as "Indians"! David Mitchell would have done well to have read Richard Dana's Two Years Before the Mast in order to see how such people thought and wrote their journals.
    Also, I can't imagine that the World of the Future will be filled with mindless human clones. These literary people seem to be fascinated by such a vision, but I think it is totally unrealistic. How can we create a mindless waitress, capable of working continuously in a robot-like way for 20 hours per day? This is a vision of genetics which was popular in the 1930s or so, particularly amongst the Nazis. But the reality is that things are much more complicated than that. Which genes are responsible for "intelligence", or "endurance", or "health"? The answer is, none of them in particular! In reality, the human genome is an extremely complicated system, a chaos, where everything depends upon everything else. The idea of "designing" clones for specific tasks simply reflects the general ignorance in the literary mind for such matters. In reality, robot-like tasks will be dealt with by machine robots in the future. And in the past as well! I remember being taken to a "Restaurant of the Future" 50 years ago, in Manhattan, where the food came out of machines in the wall. An automatic restaurant! And it was an interesting vision in those bye-gone days of the 1950s!
    But what will humanity come to in a few hundred years? Will we be consumed by our unrelenting, degenerate depravity as described in this book? Well, I suppose we are no more and no less depraved than any other living creatures. Some time ago I read a very interesting book called Games of Life, in which it was shown, on the basis of mathematical modeling, that the best strategies for survival are really just the behavioral patterns which we think of as being morally sound. This is not to say that depravity is unnatural. But it is true that depraved types live more dangerously than more "normal" people, and so their chances of survival are less.
    So I see no need for the bottomless pessimism of this book. Undoubtedly the future history of humanity will see various countries dropping numbers of atom bombs on other countries, resulting in mutual destruction. And certainly at some time in the future, humanity will experience plagues to dwarf anything seen in the past. (One theory which has been advanced to account for the extinction of the mammoths and the large animals in North America, is that this was not caused by human hunting, but rather by some disease. Maybe something like the Ebola virus.)
    But despite everything, I can imagine that people will still be living on the Earth for thousands of years into the future in much the same way as we now live. It may be true that humanity is making a mess of the world. On the other hand, the world existed for many millions of years in a pristine, but rather boring state, without humanity. So why don't we just enjoy things while we are here, making the best of it, even if it is a mess, and then when human beings do finally disappear, the Earth will return to further millions of years of its existence, undisturbed by the irritations of human inquiry.