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 (2010)

Xenophon:
     The Persian Expedition
Mathew Lyons:
     Impossible Journeys
Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin:
     Three Cups of Tea
William Golding:
     The Scorpion God
Nick Hornby:
     Slam
Andromeda Romano-Lax:
     The Spanish Bow
Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle:
     Sherlock Holmes
Kate Grenville:
     The Lieutenant
Kazuo Ishiguro:
     An Artist of the Floating World
     A Pale View of Hills
William Trevor:
     Beyond the Pale & Other Stories
Ford Madox Ford:
     The Good Soldier
Carlos Ruiz Zafón:
     The Shadow of the Wind
Nadine Gordimer:
     Jump
Bruce Chatwin:
     The Songlines
Markus Zusak:
     The Book Thief
Jeannette Walls:
     The Glass Castle
Daniel Everett:
     Don't Sleep, there are Snakes
Irene Pepperberg:
     Alex and Me
Patricia Duncker:
     The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge
William Boyd:
     Ordinary Thunderstorms
John Tyndall:
     Hours of Exercise in the Alps
Poets of the First World War:
     Anthem for Doomed Youth
Richard Price:
     Lush Life
Annie Proulx:
     The Shipping News
E.L. Doctorow:
     Homer and Langley

The Persian Expedition, by Xenophon

     The situation in the Middle East in the year 401BC was the following. Artaxerxes II was the Emperor of Persia - that is to say all of what is now Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Israel, and Egypt. His younger brother, Cyrus, was the Governor of the Turkish part of all that. Communication in those days was considerably slower than it is nowadays, and so a certain misunderstanding developed between the brothers. Therefore Cyrus decided to take matters into his own hands, march over to Babylon - near present-day Baghdad - and kill his brother, thus performing that miraculous act which has been eternally hoped for down through the ages (and indeed into our present epoch), namely regime change in the Middle East. However, unfortunately for Cyrus, and for Xenophon, the author of the present book, Artaxerxes II was able to kill Cyrus first, so that the regime did not change and Xenophon was forced to get out!
   Xenophon's motive for joining Cyrus in the first place was not of a military nature. He was an educated, upper-class citizen of Athens, hoping to obtain a favorable position under Cyrus in Western Turkey, which in those days was largely Greek. Before setting off on this adventure, he asked the advice of his mentor, Socrates, who didn't think it was such a wonderful idea. But despite this, Xenophon set of to Sardis, which was located in Lydia, and joined up there with Cyrus, who seemed to be in the process of organizing an expedition into Pisidia for the purpose of getting those unruly Pisidians back under Persian control. He had a largish army, together with about 10,000 Greek mercenaries, both heavily armed hoplites and the lighter, more agile peltasts. Both of these types were infantry soldiers, mainly from Greece proper (not the Greek cities such as Pergamon or Miletus along the western coast of present-day Turkey). In 401BC, Sparta had emerged victorious from the Peloponnesian war and was thus the dominating force in Greece. They contributed a contingent of about 1,000 soldiers to Cyrus' army, under the command of the Spartan general, Clearchus. So all together, the Greeks in Cyrus' army - The 10,000 - were a hardened, brutal, cohesive body of seasoned warriors.
    At first they were somewhat put off by the fact that Cyrus kept them moving past Pisida and Lycaonia and on into Cilicia. It was obvious that Cyrus had tricked them into this war of fratricide. Arriving finally at the abundant, fruitful country, full of canals where the Median Wall joined the Tigris and the Euphrates just north of Babylon, we have the battle of Cunaxa. According to Xenophon, Cyrus' forces were far outnumbered by those of Artaxerxes, yet the Greek divisions, and particularly the powerful hoplites, swept easily through the Persian ranks which crumbled before them. And yet, despite the fact that they had won the battle, Cyrus had been so rash as to put himself in danger, and he was stabbed with a spear.
    There followed a confusing few days. Should they take up Artaxerxes' offer to join his army? Or should they ask him to let them travel peacefully back to Greece? In the end, despite solemn agreements before the gods, the Persian general Tissaphernes lured the Greek generals into their camp where, in the middle of a banquet, they were suddenly taken and murdered. Thus the Greeks were left without their leaders in hostile territory, a thousand or more miles from safety, with Artaxerxes determined to exterminate them in order to discourage any similar incursions on his realm. They marched north along the Tigris, easily defeating Tissapherenes' forces. Suddenly they encountered the mountains of the Carduchi. That must be the people who are the present-day Kurds. They tried to tell them that they just wanted to travel peacefully through their country, but of course the Carduchi were having none of that. So they fought their way through, and then through the country of the Armenians, and then the Chalybes. Brutal fighting, deceiving the enemy on high mountain passes, seizing supplies, ravaging the countryside. For mobility they had left their tents behind, and they wore the light clothes of ancient Greece: sandals, short tunics. Thus they withstood the subzero mountain nights, sinking into six feet of snow, suffering from frostbite and snow blindness. This is a toughness beyond anything which the modern mercenaries in Iraq and Afghanistan, living in their comfortable fortified bases, could imagine.
    Eventually they reached the Black Sea and the few Greek settlements along the coast. But what were they then to do? Who was to feed them? The Greek towns were afraid of this force of rough, powerful mercenaries which suddenly appeared from nowhere. They lived off the land, pillaging the surrounding, non-Greek population. After more adventures they arrived at Byzantium where the Spartan governor quickly banished them outside the city wall. Xenophon, who had taken a commanding role in the whole business by then, got into an agreement with some prince or other of Thrace, who used the army in order to bring himself to power. Yet he failed to keep his half of the agreement, withholding the soldier's pay, thus causing much further trouble. Finally the Spartans decided to ship them back across the Hellespont into Asia, from where they had originally started, and Xenophon left them.
    The true March of the Ten Thousand is described in only about 60 pages, but then all the messy details of what to do with them once they arrive back in Greek territory goes on for over 100 pages, which was a bit tedious. Nevertheless it is a clearly related account of what it was like, what the people were thinking and saying, what the tribes they fought against were like. No boring, irrelevant philosophical speculations. But it was interesting to read that before any actions were taken, they always sacrificed a sheep, or whatever, examining the inner organs in the belief that this was the way the gods would tell them whether or not the situation was auspicious. Often they stayed for days in a bad position, waiting for positive signs from the gods. This reminded me of reading years ago of similar rituals in ancient Japan, where travelers would wait for days before setting out, then travel in the opposite direction from that which was intended in order to pacify the gods. How ridiculous!

Impossible Journeys, by Mathew Lyons

     The one reviewer of this book at Amazon was not very impressed. However the Folio Society published an edition of it this year, and from their description it sounded interesting, so I ordered it. The book consists of 24 "Tales", such as "The Walker's Tale", "The Drunkard's Tale", "The Cannibal's Tale", and so on. I suppose we are meant to think of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales". But unlike those, the "Tales" in this book are all very much the same and deal with a subject which at first is amusing, but by the time one reaches the 15th or 20th "Tale", the novelty and amusement has worn thin.
    Most of the stories are concerned with European explorers of the 16th century, setting off in their little ships and discovering parts of the Americas, or searching for possible North-West, or North-East Passages to the Pacific. In contrast to the modern-day surfer of the Internet, scrolling about in GoogleEarth, they were in ignorance of the details of the Earth's geography. And yet it is a weakness of human nature that people wish to appear competent, sometimes filling in the gaps of knowledge with invented stories. The modern reader in the Age of Information smiles with amusement at the failings of those people of the past. But after all, surely the stories of these explorers are worthy of admiration and wonder rather than merely laughing about them in a book such as this.
    The adventurer of today, wind-surfing across the Atlantic, or paddling a canoe across the Pacific, or walking across Antarctica, or whatever else they do, cannot be compared with the explorers of the 16th century. Today's adventurers are in constant contact with civilization via satellite telephones; they know precisely where they are using GPS; the people they generally encounter also have televisions and are familiar with the same "news" about the state of the world which fills the mind of the modern traveler. If, despite this, misunderstandings develop, then the local diplomatic representatives can be expected to be called on for help.
    I thought the last two stories in the book were the most interesting. As with all of the "Tales", they were frustratingly short. But these last two stories are somewhat longer - 29 pages together - and they deal with the travels of Sir Walter Raleigh in the year 1595, in his search for the lost city of El Dorado, somewhere around the Orinoco River in modern-day Venezuela. Raleigh is considered to be one of the great poets of the Age of Shakespeare. His dealings with the Indians of South America were fair, and he lacked the brutality which characterized the early Spanish conquistadors. Yet after the death of Queen Elizabeth, he was dealt with harshly by James the 1st, spending 13 years locked away in a cell in the Tower of London. James then released him, sending him on another hopeless expedition to the imaginary El Dorado. On his return, he was summarily beheaded.

Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

     What a wonderful (true) story! Greg Mortenson was a mountain climber in a group trying to climb K2, which is the second highest mountain in the world, in the Karakorum Mountains of Northern Pakistan. One of the group, a Frenchman, got himself into trouble and had to be rescued by Mortenson. The rescue was so difficult that he himself was barely able to make it back down to thicker air. Stumbling down, he took a wrong path and ended up in the tiny mountain village of Korphe, above the Braidu River, which is a tributary of the Indus. The people there nursed him back to health, and after living with them, learning the rudiments of the local language, he determined to return and build a school for the children of Korphe. This was in the year 1993.
    It's a long and involved story, totally to be recommended. In the end what happened is that a character named Jean Hoerni - a Swiss living in the U.S.A. who invented the integrated circuit; the basis of all of today's computer technology - gave him $12,000 to build the school. When it was finished, Hoernli, in his testament, founded the Central Asia Institute, or CAI, with a million dollars, in order to allow Mortenson to continue establishing many further new schools in the Karakorum.
    Greg Mortenson's work is devoted to bringing education to the children - and very particularly to the girls - in the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The education of women is the key to a better society. In village after village, everybody realizes this truth. There is a beautiful photo in the book of the men of Korphe carrying the heavy wooden beams for the roof of the new school on their backs, and leading the procession (of 18 miles) is the mullah of Korphe, a man in a comparable position to say the Catholic priest in a mountain village in Spain, an old man, yet carrying his load proudly, thinking of the future of the girls of his village! And the book ends with Greg Mortenson traveling from Kabul northwards, through the rugged mountains into the valley of Faizabad. He is unsure of his reception by the local "warlord", Sadhar Kahn. But when Kahn discovers that it is "Dr. Greg" who has come, he embraces him and immediately asks eagerly about Mortenson's possible plans for further schools for girls in his province.

The Scorpion God, by William Golding

     This book consists of three longish short stories - or perhaps one could say short novellas. But they are really too short and lacking in substance to be called that. I was disappointed, since most things by William Golding are so very good. In these stories he imagines what life might have been like for (a) an Egyptian Pharaoh, (b) a prehistoric tribeswoman - and man, somewhere in the African savanna, and (c) a Roman Emperor. The stories (a) and (b) were first published in 1971, when Golding was 60 years old, and (c) was first published in 1956. Thus they cannot be dismissed as the obscure and aberrant scribblings of the Young Author.
    The Egyptian pharaoh story seemed to me to be extremely far-fetched. Of course we have no real idea about the day-to-day life of those pharaohs. Was it exclusively concerned with public sexual couplings between the pharaoh and his various children, or between the children amongst themselves, to the exclusion of all else? Certainly the subject of incest within the ancient Egyptian nobility does provide the author with a welcome opportunity to explore obscure and titillating themes. Nevertheless, the fact is that there was a whole string of dynasties down through the history of ancient Egypt. And so it is obvious that if one pharaoh let himself go into such a degenerate state of depravity as in this story, then there were many usurpers waiting in the wings, all too eager to violently depose the old dynasty and start a more vigorous new one. Were the pharaohs warrior kings, leading their armies into the field, and thus fulfilling the traditional role of a king? This seems to me to be a more plausible scenario than the other possibility which is exemplified by the emperors of Japan. As living gods, secluded from life in the real world, I am sure the Japanese emperors lived their lives in great sobriety, and thus they were not subject to the envy of common mortals. As a result, there has been an unbroken dynasty of over 2500 years in Japan.
    The story of the prehistoric tribes-people depicts them as being very childish. Perhaps William Golding was imagining the australopithecus phase of human prehistory here. On the other hand, the men in the story wear loincloths, and the women grass skirts. Surely this would be beyond the capacity of an australopithecus. He emphasizes the role of the women in the tribe, reflecting the newly resurgent feeling of Women's Liberation which was sweeping through the tribe of English people, to which he belonged in 1971.
    Finally the Roman emperor story does not attempt to identify the protagonist with any one individual in that long list of quickly deposed of figures who gained that position in the ancient world. Instead, the story seems to have been motivated by Golding's experiences in World War 2, with all of its mechanized, mass murders. The Roman emperor gets to know a Greek genius in the field of "natural philosophy", who constructs a paddle-wheel ship, propelled by a piston steam engine, and armed with cannon, firing bombs filled with gunpowder. It's all a bit like Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court - far-fetched, but without the humor of Mark Twain. William Golding's emperor then asks the Captain of his soldiers whether or not he thinks these weapons of mass destruction would be a good thing to have. But the Captain answers - somewhat implausibly - that he would prefer not to have them, since if they were employed, he would then lose his job.
    I suppose all of this was meant to fall into the category of satire. But it seems to me that William Golding required a book-length story to really warm to such a subject. As far as satire is concerned, his novel The Paper Men is a masterpiece! In contrast, this book is surprisingly childish.

Slam, by Nick Hornby

     A very funny book. I just had to laugh. The protagonist is Sam, a 16 year old teenager in London who spends his time skateboarding about on all of the concrete of the big city while thinking about his hero, Tony Hawk, a person I had never heard of before reading this book. But it seems that this is the Great Figure in the skateboarding scene. Sam introduces Tony Hawk to the reader in the first few pages, but then we are told that from now on, he will be referred to as "TH". I would recommend that you click around a few of the Tony Hawk web sites on the Internet, looking at some of the videos. I was impressed with what he can do. But as with ice skating (a subject which Sam looks upon with disdain), watching an endless collection of people on television during the Winter Olympics, jumping in the air, rotating about themselves 2 1/2, or 3, or 3 1/2 times, or whatever it is, and then falling down, then getting up to try it once more, etcetera, does become rather tedious.
    Sam admits that he is not such an expert at skateboarding. He tells us that the various members of his family have distinguished themselves by having children when they themselves were children. Thus, for example, at the time Sam is 16 years old, his mother is only 32 years old. To some of Sam's friends, his mother is sufficiently young and attractive for them to ask him if she is available! But still, he gets along with her very well. His father, also in his early 30s, has, of course, progressed to other things, and he lives somewhere else in London with his "real" family. Because of all the disruptions caused by having a baby at the age of 16, both his mother and his father have, if anything, descended downwards in the hierarchy of society. Thus Sam tells himself - and also he tells the poster of TH hanging on his bedroom wall - that he will definitely not follow this family tradition, ruining his life by having a baby before he grows up.
    Of course things turn out differently. His mother introduces him to the daughter of a friend of hers; they fall madly in love; there are problems with all these condoms and things and she becomes pregnant, to the horror of Sam. But the girlfriend, Alicia, definitely wants the baby. So Nick Hornby leads us through all the various scenes this involves - through the eyes of the 16 year old Sam. The parents of the parents are on the whole supportive. Sam's mother, who becomes a grandmother at the age of 32 or 33 (and who will probably become a great-grandmother at the age of 48, or so!) herself becomes pregnant. Thus Sam's little boy is older than his newly-born little aunt. And so it goes. An nice story with a happy ending.

The Spanish Bow, by Andromeda Romano-Lax

     There is a very nice picture of the author, an attractive young woman with an unusual, astronomical name, both inside the back cover of this paperback, and also the same picture is found on her web-page, which I've linked to here. She is an amateur cellist who lives in Alaska. The extremes of humidity of that arctic climate have led her to play a cello built not of wood, but rather of a carbon-fiber, composite material. This book concentrates on a fictional Spanish character who we are supposed to think of as being the real-life, famous cellist, Pablo Casals. And then much is made of the life of this fictional character being shaped by the cello bow which his father gave him as a small boy. The bow of the book is presumably made of wood, I suppose of the South American, tropical variety. Whether or not Andromeda Romano-Lax's cello bow is also made of carbon-fiber composite, or perhaps titanium, or more mundanely, Alaskan spruce, or whatever else grows there, is a question which is left floating in the air for the reader to decide for himself.
    In any case, I know from personal experience that traditional cello bows, which seem to me to be simple pieces of carved wood which a practiced workman could fashion from a raw plank in a couple of hours, cost more than I can possibly imagine that they are worth. Why is it that the bow we bought years ago - a good quality one, but hardly the most expensive cello bow on offer - cost more than each of the baroque flutes which I have bought from Rudolf Tutz, the most famous modern maker of baroque woodwind instruments? Such a flute, having only one key, might at first appear to be a simple instrument, but thinking about it, I count at least 16 different parts which must fit perfectly together. Then the embouchure must be carefully and individually carved out of the headpiece, and each of the finger holes must also be carefully shaped, and the whole thing exhaustively tuned with further fine adjustments of carving. String players, who are traditionally thought to be "highly strung", may continue to say that the ridiculous prices they pay for their bows are worth it. But I know that Rudolf Tutz, who is a genius with wood, and is in addition a magnificent specimen of all that is great in the Austrian character, produces works of true and lasting art at a fair price!
    But to progress from the subject of over-priced cello bows to the contents of this book, I did enjoy reading through most of it, but then at the end, I must admit that I lost interest and gave up. The character of this imagined Pablo Casals was somewhat overly romanticized. As with Mozart, the real-life Casals had an overbearing, dominating father who forced the poor little Pablo to devote his life to tedious mechanical exercises, away from the healthy open air and play which a normal young boy is allowed to enjoy. In the book, the more human but less believable, romanticized Pablo - whose name is "Feliu" - joins up with a somewhat older character who was also a wonder-child, characterized as "The Spanish Mozart". Together they tour around Spain and the rest of Europe in the first part of the 20th century. This Spanish Mozart is given the name "Justo Al-Cerraz". Somehow, this Justo seemed to me to be a more believable character. A hard-drinking party-goer from whom the music just flows, equally on the concert stage or in a night-club or at a private dinner party. But as far as Pablo is concerned, years ago we got a CD with a collection of some of Casals' "Early Recordings" from the 1920s. They are all short pieces with piano accompaniment. Now it is certainly true that musical fashion has changed much in the 90 years between then and now. But still, what I hear on this CD is a metronome-like, plodding style, perhaps dragged along by the uninspired piano, with a huge, mechanical vibrato. This is a world away from the wonderful playing of a Jacqueline du Pré, who moved me to tears, along with so many other people back then in the 1960s. Whenever I see that great character, Danial Barenboim, I think of how she and he played together all those years ago. What greater things are there in the world? They are the people who inspired me during those psychedelic 1960s.
    Anyway, as the book progresses, Feliu, the hero, becomes a kind of Forrest Gump of Spain in the age of dictators. He is present at all the great historical moments of King Alfonso XIII and Queen Ena, telling them what to do in life. He is ever present at the various defining moments of Franco's life, travels over to Washington to tell FDR what to do, then back to Europe. At this point, I gave up on the book. But I do see that he also had great dealings with Hitler and Mussolini, and I suppose Churchill and whichever other characters of that tragic epoch of Earth's history which came into the mind of Andromeda. On the other hand, I will admit that she did motivate me to google many of the details of Spanish history of that time, and so I did gain something from this book.

Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle

     The retina in my right eye again detached itself! Another operation, this time somewhat more severe than last time. Not a good thing. From now on I will try to be most careful with the eyes. They are not as robust as one thinks, particularly as we get older.
    So I have been unable - or at least it has been an unpleasant exercise to try - to read for the past few weeks. In order to pass the time, I decided to try listening to some audio books. The Project Gutenberg people have a collection, some of which are read by computer, and some by people.
    In fact, I remember that my first Apple Macintosh computer, which I got 25 years ago, back in 1985, had a program which read out loud any text which you clicked on. A nice gimmick, which I showed to people who had gotten themselves the old IBM-PC, with its 8088 processor. Their computers couldn't speak!
    Still, the voice of the old Macintosh was not something you would want to listen to for hours on end. Judging from the offerings at Project Gutenberg, I find that zero progress has been made in the last 25 years in the direction of getting computers to speak in a more human way. Thus I would recommend avoiding such things, and instead it is best to look for audio books read by real people.
    Most of the ones at Gutenberg start every chapter with a standard announcement, in which the reader says that "This is an audio recording from 'Librivox.org', etc. etc." Then the reader goes on to read that chapter. Well, this Librivox thing is, like Wikepedia, made by people just clicking themselves in and contributing what they can. Fair enough.
    Unfortunately though, almost all of the readers have unpleasant voices. But I suppose this is understandable. Imagine a similar project in the realm of music, where, let us say, the goal is to have a complete set of audio recordings of all of Johann Sebastian Bach's Cantatas. We could establish a web-domain, say with the name "bachcanvox.org". Then we would start it off by stating the purpose of this great project, and ask interested readers for help, in that they could send in mp3 files of their recordings of whatever they might be able to contribute. In order to avoid unnecessary repetition, we could include a list in bachcanvox.org of the various movements, individual vocal numbers and what have you, which are still missing from the whole collection.
    And what would be the result of our "bachcanvox.org" project? It would be a horrible mess! Every frustrated housewife, or businessman in a midlife crisis, would suddenly discover that if only the world could hear their voice, as it really sounds, then true happiness and fulfillment must surely follow. Any innocent seeker of "www" surfing pleasures, happening to click into bachcanvox.org, and onto one of its mp3 offerings with the expectation of sublime entertainment, would be shocked to discover a hodge-podge of halting, dissonant, disagreeable voices. Such a seeker would click out into something else as quickly as possible! Good riddance. In reality, there is a site, called "http://www.bach-cantatas.com", which gives lots of information about the subject, and also describes various sensible recordings of the music by truly competent people.
    Perhaps I am being unfair to librivox.org in writing all this. Most of their readers are Americans. Despite George W. Bush, I am not basically against things which are American. After all, I also have a more-or-less American accent. My friends in our reading circle are all Americans, and I find their voices pleasant, and I always look forward to hearing what they say about one thing and another. But perhaps there is something in the American character which encourages a person with no aptitude for a given thing to do it anyway, and then to applaud him, despite the fact that the performance is substandard. At least I know that my voice is so dreadful that it would be an unforgivable bit of hubris for me to presume to read the chapter of some book or other and then submit it to librivox.org.
    For some reason, the German readers who have presumed to sent their offerings to librivox.org generally do have very pleasant voices. I have listened to large parts of "Ein Sommer in London", by Theodor Fontane. Most of it is read by a fellow with a really great voice. But then it is interrupted by the odd chapter read by somebody with the most dreadful voice imaginable.
    Gutenberg does also have some recordings by a group within the website "http://literalsystems.org/abooks/index.php". The readers are people with sensible voices: actors, and whatever. They have placed their work in the public domain. But unfortunately they have only recorded a very few, very short things which are hardly worth listening to. And they seem to only bother to contribute very sporadically.
    However I was able to find a good collection of audio books at Project Gutenberg! This is its collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. I have now listened to all of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, His Last Bow, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet, and The Valley of Fear. All of these, and this is certainly not the whole extent of the collection, are read by an English reader who is obviously a professional actor. Very dramatic. Well worth listening to. (But note that it is important to click on the files which have been encoded at 32 kbits/sec, rather than those at only 16 kbits/sec. The later are librivox.org offerings, read by amateur Americans.)
    Anyway, these Sherlock Holmes recordings come from a website called "audiobooksforfree.com". Thus I clicked into that, thinking that it must be the solution to all this seeking after sensible audio books. And it looks as if it's free!
    But no. If you actually click in there, you will discover that it is not free. They are simply being dishonest when they use that name. But what can you expect with all these internet things? At least you can rely on my website being totally free! In reality, audiobooksforfree.com costs US$100 to have them send a set of DVDs with everything that they have. The only reason they put the Sherlock Holmes books into Project Gutenberg is to get people familiar with what they have, in the hope that they will pay for the rest of their books.
    But this is sensible. One hundred American dollars is little for the performances of many hours of a varied collection of professional actors. After all, they have to live too. And to purchase a collection of CDs which includes all of Bach's Cantatas, performed by real musicians, would cost many times that price indeed.

The Lieutenant, by Kate Grenville

     This is a novel which is based on the experiences of William Dawes, who was an officer of the marines in the First Fleet which founded the colony of New South Wales in Australia. I enjoyed reading it, and I read it almost in one go. Yet despite this, for me it was not up to the standard Kate Grenville set in her earlier novel, The Secret River. It is more one-sided, restricting the fictional version of Dawes, to whom she gives the name Daniel Rooke, to a lonely, extremely "politically correct" version of his life. The English settlers - or invaders - of this new (yet of course geologically and ethnologically stable and old) continent are nothing but evil, and the native Australians are depicted as pure, angelic figures. They are the noble savages of 18th century fantasy, or 21st century eco-politics.
    But surely the reality back then in 1788 when the First Fleet arrived in Sydney Harbor was more complex and interesting. The First Fleet was not composed of a group of religious zealots, in the style of the Mayflower, landing in Massachusetts in 1620, or an army of conquistadors, as led by Cortés in his conquest of Mexico in 1518. Instead, the situation was that England had just lost its American colonies in their War of Independence (or Revolutionary War, as it is termed in the U.S.A.). The English had found it to be convenient to ship off its criminal classes to work on the plantations of the colonies as virtual slaves. Yet suddenly this solution was no longer viable. On the other hand, the ships holding the convicts to be shipped away as far as possible from England were gradually overflowing, waiting to go somewhere. Therefore the moneyed classes of England, those dukes or earls of this or that province of little England, whose wealth was derived from the torment of African slaves in the West Indies, or the southern colonies of North America, decided to ship them to the opposite end of the world, the eastern coast of Australia which had just been mapped by Captain Cook.
    This thankless task was given to Arthur Phillip, a naval commander. Undoubtedly the aristocracy of England would have been just as happy if the First Fleet were to sink in a storm, or at least if the colony in New South Wales were to fail. Then, at least, they would save themselves from further expense. Yet Phillip was not the man they had reckoned with. While still in England, organizing the Fleet, he asked to have mostly convicts familiar with farm work to be those at first sent to the new colony. Of course the arrogant aristocrats rejected this out of hand. His ships were filled with convicts from the slums of London. Funds for the purchase of farming equipment to get the colony started were held to the absolute minimum.
    Upon arrival at Sydney Cove, he did everything to ensure the survival of his people. The convicts who, according to English law, were without civil rights, were given as much freedom and justice as practicable. But discipline was necessary. In particular, Phillip realized that it would be essential for their survival to avoid conflicts with the native populations. Thus he gave clear orders to his people that anyone who killed a native would be hanged. And of course, given the people he had, desperate convicts and disgruntled soldiers, it is obvious that a certain degree of discipline would have to be enforced. The soil at Sydney is not very fertile. So the colonists nearly died of starvation before their English masters got around to shipping out the Second Fleet, with its store of provisions.
    It is certainly true that in the years of English settlement in Australia after Governor Phillip had left, the early 1800s, many of the convicts were horribly tortured, especially in the penal settlements in Tasmania and Norfolk Island. And of course the native peoples of Australia were conquered not only by disease, but also by brutal violence and alcohol. (This is something Grenville dealt with in her earlier, very moving novel.) Nevertheless, Arthur Phillip goes down in history as an enlightened, sensible man. The founder of modern Australia. Therefore it is difficult for me to sympathize with Grenville's treatment of the character of Arthur Phillip.
    To begin with, perhaps since she realizes how out of character her portrayal of the first Governor of New South Wales is, she gives him a fantasy name, namely "James Gilbert". But how can you write an historical novel by changing the names of the main characters? For example, many people have written novels about Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots. How strange it would be if someone were to write another novel within this familiar genre, but the protagonists were now, let us say, Queen "Rebecca" (sic) of England and "Julia" (sic) Queen of Scots. Yet all the other characters had their original names. Surely that would be absurd. The only way to transport such an absurdity into a reasonable fiction would be to alter the rest of the setting as well. For example Queen Rebecca would now be the queen of some fantasy island, and the rest of the characters would have to be changed as well.
    In Grenville's fantasy version of Sydney Cove, her James Gilbert gives a starving convict who steals a few potatoes a horribly brutal and unnecessary punishment. But in reality, her hero, the real-life William Dawes, bought the rations of a convict - in effect "stealing" the food of a starving man - thus violating a clear order which Arthur Phillip had established pertaining to all members of the colony, both the convicts and the marines who were guarding them. Of course Phillip did not punish Dawes with a sickening display of public torture. Yet he did consider it to be an action unbecoming an officer such as Dawes.
    As with Phillip himself, Dawes was interested in understanding the native peoples of Australia. Phillip befriended Bennelong who, as in the book, was at first captured as a means to establish some contact with the very reserved local Eora tribe. The Sydney Opera House is built on a projection of land into the Harbor, called "Bennelong Point". Similarly, Dawes befriended a young girl, whose name was Patyegarang. The snippets of language he was able to acquire from her are recorded in his notebooks, which were the basis of Grenville's novel, and they can be read on-line here. Unlike Grenville's character, the real-life Dawes was not a recluse. Rather he was one of the most active officers in the colony.
    Despite the best efforts of Phillip, conflicts between the native people and the English were inevitable. Obviously the Aborigines felt that they had to do something about the insults they had received from these intruders. Indeed, Phillip himself received a spear in the shoulder, thrown by an Aborigine at Manly Beach. But on that occasion he ordered his men not to retaliate. Eventually however, things came to a head, and a punitive expedition was sent out into the bush to bring back "dead or alive" a number of members of the tribe which had killed some of the English. Dawes was ordered to take part. At first he refused, but then he was persuaded to go. It was really just an empty show; they failed to kill or capture anyone. But Dawes then told Phillip that he would really refuse to take part in any similar expeditions in the future. Unlike the story of the book, such insubordination by an officer was not dealt with by hanging, or any of the other fantastic punishments Grenville imagines. Phillip simply considered it to be a personal insult by a fellow officer, challenging his authority in a dangerous way.
    After a couple of years, Dawes had the choice of staying on in Sydney or returning to England. He thought it would be nice to establish himself on a farm in Australia, but in order to secure his financial future, it would also be nice to have at least a half-income as an ex-officer of the colony. He petitioned Phillip to allow him this favor, and indeed Phillip was agreeable, but on the condition that Dawes apologize to him for the two times he had not behaved as an English officer was expected to behave. All of this is distorted completely in Grenville's account. Dawes, proud as he was, refused, and returned to England without the threat of any court-martial.

    Daniel Rooke, the fictional character Grenville assigns to the character of Dawes, is depicted as a recluse and mathematical genius. His boyhood mathematical accomplishments rival those of the great Karl Friedrich Gauss. In fact, as a wonder-child he puts Gauss to shame! The Astronomer-Royal of England invites Rooke, the boy-genius, to live with him at Greenwich and learn all the secrets of mathematics and the universe. (Gauss himself had to wait until he grew up in order to have an astronomical observatory for himself.) But unlike Gauss, for whom we have concrete anecdotes of the fruits of his childhood genius, Kate Grenville, not being familiar with many details of the world of mathematics, can only describe the achievements of her wonder-child in terms of vague generalizations. And here we see again - as with music - that the subject of mathematics is a thing which almost all novelists seem incapable of describing sensibly. For example she goes on and on about the wonderful discoveries in geometry which her character finds in Euclid's Elements. Euclid comes up again and again in the book.
    The interested reader may enjoy having a look at an on-line version of Euclid, with animated, java-script drawings, to be found here. In reality, Euclid's text is filled with errors and logical gaps. For example Proposition 1 in Book 1, the very first thing Euclid "proves", namely that an equilateral triangle exists, contains at least two or three gaping logical errors. This was recognized by numbers of people even in the ancient world. Any mathematically interested young person, forced to learn Euclid by rote, would soon learn to hate mathematics! In fact, just this last semester I lectured to a group of students studying to become teachers. The subject of the lectures was "Euclidean Geometry", first of all showing what nonsense Euclid is, but then going on to describe the truly beautiful and elegant system which David Hilbert developed, and which can be freely downloaded here.

An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro

     A beautiful novel. This one made a much greater impression on me than his more well-known Remains of the Day, or Never Let Me Go. Unlike those books, this is not something which could be made into a movie. We don't imagine a magnificent period drama, staring Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins. Instead, this book is a subtle Japanese story, seeming to say very little, yet actually saying very much.
    Ishiguro was born in Japan - in Nagasaki in 1954 - moving to England with his family when he was six years old. The story of the book takes place in Tokyo in 1948-50. The narrator is Masuji Ono, an old man living in an imposing, once elegant house which dominates its surroundings on a tree-lined hill. But along with much else, the house has suffered extensive bomb damage during the war. In fact the last bomb also killed Ono's wife. His son was a soldier who was killed in the war somewhere in Manchuria. But he does have two daughters, the elder, married daughter is Setsuko, and the younger daughter is Noriko, who remains with him. She is already 26 years old, still unmarried, and Ono's problem is to see that she also achieves marriage. We learn about the complicated business of traditional Japanese marriage negotiations. It doesn't seem to be a business of how much money one family pays to the other, as in India. Rather the question is whether or not the other family occupies a suitable social position in relation to one's own family. Are there any dark, hidden secrets the other family might be hiding which might reflect badly on the position of one's own family? In order to discover such possible secrets, detectives are employed to delve into the past, to make inquiries amongst the friends and relatives of the other family.
    Ono himself has had a distinguished career as an artist. He occupied a very respectable position in society and had a large circle of students for whom he was the master. Gradually, as we read on through the book, we learn more about his career. Was there something dark and hidden which is creating difficulties in the marriage negotiations for Noriko?
    As a young artist, Ono was a member of a colony of students whose master, Mori-san, was concerned with "modernizing" traditional Japanese art. That is to say, all those pictures of geishas, with their stylized kimonos, contemplating Mt. Fuji, or whatever. They are painted with a feeling of flatness, emphasizing abstract textures. So Mori-san's idea was to paint such pictures in the "western" style, I suppose somewhat like Degas' ballet dancers. Ono became Mori-san's favorite pupil, his protégé. Mori-san explains to Ono that the world of entertainment, of drinking and good cheer and available women is the true subject of serious art. This is the floating world. Many young men feel at first a certain guilt when entering this floating world, but they soon come to learn that this is the true world of experience and emotion.
    But then Ono meets Matsuda, who shows him that this is not the reality of the world. He leads him through the slums of Tokyo, showing him the squalor and brutality of life. What is the cause of this squalor? What is Ono doing, squandering his life on these meaningless pictures of gieshas? Can't he see the degeneration which is overwhelming Japan? The businessmen with all their corruption and immorality, poisoning everything. The politicians, caught up in this corruption, increasing and embracing it. In order to lead society back to a higher, more just path, a movement should be started in which the traditional moral values are again held in esteem. Japan should join the other great colonial powers of the world: England, France, Holland, the U.S.A., and establish a system of overseas colonies for the advancement of the nation.
    Thus Ono begins painting scenes whose purpose is to show the nobility of Japanese tradition and to illustrate the paths ahead into the future. He leaves Mori-san, and as time develops through the 1930s, Mori-san's reputation diminishes as Ono's increases.

    But now the war is finished. It is 1948, Ono is an old man, and he looks back on his life, wondering if it was worthwhile. Other artists, singers of patriotic songs, have committed suicide to atone for what they feel was the guilt of their actions. But Ono's thoughts are far from suicide. He takes satisfaction from the thought that he was not one of Mori-san's mediocre pupils, simply continuing on in a meaningless way. He has had the courage to strike out in a new direction. In the end, this direction led to tragedy. Still, he followed this path with a pure and honest heart.
    Much of this parallels the developments in Germany in the 1930s. The push to the East to conquer "Lebensraum" in Poland and Russia was similar to Japan's push to the West into Manchuria and further South into the Pacific in the direction of Australia. But thankfully Germany and Japan lost the war, and also the traditional European colonial powers have "lost" their colonies. Has the world thus become a place where people can live peacefully in a sensible system, free of glaring injustice? How pleasant that would be!
    Unfortunately we must see how corruption has again become the order of the day. The bankers of Wall Street flaunt the law, happily gorging themselves on their ill-earned billions, controlling a political class which cannot be bothered to even pretend to hide the corruption. And correspondingly, the under-class is slipping back into squalor. Is the world now returning to the condition it was in a hundred years ago, dominated by the robber barons whose corruption provoked war?

A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro

     According to the link, Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954, and then he came to England with his family in 1960 when his father took up a position with the English National Institute of Oceanography. Thus he grew up as an Englishman, with his father immersed in the pursuit of the science of the ocean. After all, Japan is an oceanic country, as is England, and while the British Royals are not known for their scientific accomplishments, the recent Japanese Emperors have published their discoveries on marine organisms in the scientific literature.
    Nagasaki is certainly a very noteworthy city. Of course it was hit by the second atomic bomb which was dropped by the Americans on Japan, ending the War in the Pacific. Nagasaki was not the primary target of the B-29 bomber, named "Bockscar", on August 9, 1945. The target was the ancient city of Kokura. But on that morning, Kokura was covered by a thick layer of clouds so that the secondary target, Nagasaki, was chosen. It is thus apparently the case that in Japan, people associate Kokura with luck and happiness, and I suppose Nagasaki is associated with the opposite of that. Rather than being dropped on the harbor, which was the true target, the bomb was dropped through a gap in the clouds above the Mitsubishi factory. Since Nagasaki is relatively hilly, large portions of the city were spared, being behind various hills.
    Both the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had similar yields, although they functioned according to different principles. The Hiroshima bomb, using uranium-235, had a much simpler mechanism. One can say that uranium-235 is to the plutonium of the Nagasaki bomb as is high octane gasoline compared to low octane, "normal" gasoline. Plutonium suffers from "pre-ignition", tending to explode suddenly, as soon as the critical mass is reached, blowing everything apart before things get properly started. The solution was to assemble a spherical configuration of shaped charges around a hollow sphere of plutonium. All together, this gave a very massive bomb, called the "Fat Man".
    Who would have thought in 1945 that the world would live on for another 65 years to the present day, in 2010, without suffering any further mass murders through atomic bombs? We seem to have forgotten all about them. Yet both Russia and the U.S.A. still have thousands of bombs, mounted on rockets, waiting to go, and each of those bombs has a yield many, many times greater than that of the the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. And this is not to mention all the atomic bombs held by England, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and who knows which further countries as well? I wonder if the world will be lucky enough to exist for a further 65 years without atomic bombs destroying cities.
    As with high versus low octane gasoline, uranium-235 is very difficult to produce. It must be separated from the much more common 238 isotope, whereas plutonium is produced simply as a waste product in atomic power stations. How strange it is that people who used to be concerned about the advancement of peace and goodwill have now become carried away in a wave of hysteria whose focal point is that ubiquitous element carbon, which is the basis of life on the earth. The ultimate purpose of this carbon phobia (and as geologists know, there has been little correlation between the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and temperature throughout geological time) seems to be to force through the construction of myriads of new atomic power stations, therefore furthering the cause of future atomic war. Is this hysteria excused by pure ignorance, or are these supposed "peace-activists" secretly driven by a lust for destruction?
    Nagasaki has had a long history of interaction between Japanese and Western culture. In the 16th century it was a center of Portuguese trading and missionary activity. For many years it was the only Japanese port open to contact with western civilization. And perhaps before the atomic bomb, Nagasaki might have been best known to Europeans and Americans, owing to the fact that it is the city of the heroine of Puccini's Madam Butterfly. In fact, looking these things up via the Internet, I see that Madam Butterfly is today the most-performed opera in the United States. Somehow, I doubt if it is the most popular (western) opera performed in Japan!
    So all of this brings us to the subject of this book, Ishiguro's first novel. The narrator is Etsuko, a Japanese woman living alone in England. She is being visited by her daughter Niki. Etsuko's first daughter, Keiko, was born of a Japanese father in Nagasaki, but for some unexplained reason, Etsuko moved to England and married a native Englishman, who was the father of Niki. Keiko left the family, moving to Manchester (if I recall correctly) where she lived alone, committing suicide by hanging herself in her apartment. During the time Keiko was living at home, growing up, she hated her English step-father and all the rest of everything, locking herself in her room the whole day, allowing nobody in. Apparently Etsuko's English husband has also died, or at least separated from Etsuko.
    But this is not the real story. Instead it takes place during Etsuko's former life in Nagasaki. It is just a few years after the Bomb. She is married to her first husband, Jiro. Jiro's father visits them from his retirement home in Fukuoka, spewing unpleasant thoughts about how it is good for a husband to beat a wife when he discovers that the wife plans to vote for a different candidate in an election than the candidate the husband had thought about. We suspect that he is a source of suppressed violence which may lash out unexpectedly at some stage of the story. But thankfully, he departs towards the end before any damage is done.
    The main story concerns a strange woman named Sachiko, who Etsuko discovers in a derelict hut, across an expanse of mud from the newly-built apartment house where she is living. Sachiko has an even stranger young daughter, Mariko. Etsuko becomes friendly with Sachiko, helping her out in various ways. Sachiko is the Madam Butterfly of the story. But unlike the Pinkerton of Puccini's story, Sachiko's Frank does not pretend to marry Sachiko. In fact, Frank is quite clearly just a degenerate alcoholic American soldier, looking for whatever he can get in the way of female satisfaction in the bars of post-war Japan. Unlike Pinkerton, Frank does not bother giving Sachiko any money. It's just lots of empty words. And we learn about all of this through the memories Etsuko tells us about, years in the future, in England.
    It was an interesting, absorbing story. Things seemed to be becoming more and more interesting. I was reading on into the night. What will happen to Sachiko and Mariko? Sachiko brutally drowns the poor little kittens of Mariko, which were the only things she had in this cruel world, thus easing Sachiko's imagined move with Frank to the dream-land of America. (Somehow Puccini's tender solos for Madam Butterfly are difficult to imagine in this scene.) But then, suddenly, I was aware of the fact that the book was rapidly running out of pages! There are only 183 of them.
    Ishiguro surprises the reader in the final pages by having Etsuko speak to the shattered Mariko as if she herself were Sachiko. And there the book ends. How disappointing it is that Ishiguro has resorted to the simple trick of converting everything into a surreal drama with this confusion of the two main characters. Is Etsuko really Sachiko? Was Frank the father of Niki? Who knows? Who cares? I was very disappointed. But I suppose such things are to be expected in a first novel. At least I just borrowed the book from the library, rather than actually buying it. Ishiguro has delved further into the depths of surrealism in his When We Were Orphans, which I read some time ago. And I see that The Unconsoled, which I haven't read, is even more so. It's not that I am totally closed to the idea of surrealism. But if you are going to do it, then it should be done properly, for example in the style of Murakami.

Beyond the Pale & Other Stories, by William Trevor

     As the title says, this is a book of short stories. William Trevor grew up in Ireland where his real name was William Trevor Cox. Many of the stories in the book are concerned with things in Ireland. His father worked for a bank, so that the family was moved about within Ireland from place to place. But when he grew up and became a young man in his twenties, William Trevor settled in England where he has stayed until now. I suppose the Cox family had lived for generations in Ireland. They were Protestant English people, rather than native Irish Catholics. Therefore many of these stories are told from the point of view of English visitors to Ireland. This is particularly so in the story which gives the title to the book, "Beyond the Pale".
    But more generally, the stories are about people trapped in some situation. A man borrows money to buy the neighboring field for his farm from a local storekeeper, and in return, his daughter must toil endlessly as a maid for the unpleasant wife of the storekeeper; she has become a slave serving her family virtually for life, just for the sake of this field.
    Or two people in London in the story "Lovers of Their Time": a man and a woman who are hopelessly in love with one another. The man works in a travel agents, the woman in a shop. But the man is married to another woman, and he and his wife are unable to have children. His wife is very sexually active, not only with the man, but with other men as well. Yet this cannot lead to the children the man longs for. He doesn't earn enough money to divorce his wife and start a family with the woman he loves. It is the 1950s, and the music of Elvis Presley fills the air. Time passes into the 1960s. Carnaby Street becomes all the rage. The Beatles. The Stones. The man and the woman take to meeting awkwardly in the bathtub of a bathroom in a hotel near one of the train stations of London. They have discovered that it is possible to sneak into the bathtub without being discovered. What a life! They take the step of having him divorce the wife, but they can then only afford to move in to the house of the mother of the woman. The mother hates him. She makes life intolerable for both of them. There is simply not enough money for them to exist like this in London. In the end they separate, he returns to his wife and the woman marries someone else. How sad. A number of the stories deal with similar couples in similar situations.
    In the story "The Hill Bachelors", we have the situation of young men inheriting farms in Ireland, living at the bare level of existence. They would like to marry, there are numbers of young women in the district, but these women are all keen to escape from poverty to the freedom of towns and cities. And so the bachelors gradually become lonely, eccentric old men. "The Ballroom Romance" is the same story, but this time it is a young woman who becomes trapped on the lonely farm into her old age.
    The stories are sad, poignant. But I must admit that now that I have finished the book, I have forgotten the details of many of them. Somehow my mind rebells against all of this sadness and fatalism. It refuses to record it into memory, keeping those memory cells - or at least the energy for building new synapses - free for happier thoughts.

The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford

     Googling the internet to find an interesting link to Ford's Good Soldier, I found this one which appeared in the Guardian a couple of years ago. It was written by somebody called Jane Smiley who apparently has written a book called 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. She says that this one is considered by many to be "one of the few stylistically perfect works in any language". Then she continues on to say that the fact that "it is a masterpiece, almost a perfect novel, comes as a repeated surprise even to readers who have read it before". So there you are! From the tone of her review, it is unclear to me whether or not she was smiling when she wrote that. Certainly I am just now smiling when writing this. (And here is a little "smiley" for you: (:-))
    The book was written in the years before the First World War. Ford Madox Ford, whose real name was Ford Madox Hueffer, was over 40 years old when the war started, yet he volunteered for military duty. He had originally planed to have the book titled "The Saddest Story". But his publishers thought that that would sound a bit strange in the midst of a war since, for most people, the reality of war was much sadder than the trivial philanderings of the hero of this book. Thus the title was changed to "The Good Soldier". But really, that was also a rather cynical deception, wasn't it? I wonder how many mothers of the dead soldiers of Flanders saw this book in the bookshop and bought it, hoping for some words of redemption? What a bitter disappointment it would have been!
    In any case, the author survived the war and then in 1919 decided to change his surname from the Germanic Hueffer to the more automotive sounding Ford. (His father, Francis Hueffer, was a German musicologist. He immigrated to England where he was the music critic of the Times newspaper.) Ford's fascination with the Ford name, leading to this strange symmetry, is certainly interesting. Did he own a Model-T back in those days? For whatever it is worth, I see that of the Big Three in Detroit, only Ford seems to have survived the recent panic in the automobile industry relatively unscathed.
    But to get down to the book, the plot is a bit complicated, so I will not try to summarize it. If anybody reads this with the hope of obtaining such a summary, then let me refer you to the appropriate link here in the Wikipedia.
    The story is concerned with the problems rich people have with one another. Thus the central theme is money, and the problems the rich have when it comes to finding someone to love. I always enjoy reading the short snippets relating to such problems which appear every day in our local newspaper on the back page of the first section. How is Madonna's divorce getting along? Sandra Bullock is also having divorce problems too, at least according to today's paper. Next to each such snippet, there is a picture of the suffering celebrity. The problem is that if you have a couple of hundred million dollars or so, then everybody says they love you. But of course they don't. They only love your money. And so life becomes consumed by an endless search for that unattainable thing called "love".
    Similarly, the "good soldier" of this book, Edward Ashburnham, is a typical member of the English landed gentry of a hundred years ago. His "old income" from his family estates amounts to £5,000 per year. Of course for the modern reader, living in this age of inflation where increases in the supply of paper money (and imaginary money, making its way from the computer in one bank to the next over the telephone wires or through optical cables, inflating itself at each juncture) are considered to be a part of the natural order of things, it is difficult to imagine a time when the value of money was more or less stable over time. In fact it is almost a shock - a revolutionary thought - to think that the Age of Inflation has only been with us for 80 or 90 years now. Before that, back when this book was first published, £5,000 per year was a fixed idea which would equally have made sense to Admiral Nelson in 1800, or to Samuel Pepys, in 1670. Using the inflation calculator, we find that the £5,000 of 1910 would be worth the equivalent of about £375,000 of today's money, using the retail price index. Thus Edward Ashburnham was certainly comfortably well off, but even he would find it to be difficult to lead anything like an extravagant life in the high society of London. So we can understand his modesty, his empathy with people beneath his station. His wealth is well below the level which would be necessary in order for him to secure a place in the gossip columns of the daily newspapers.
    On the other hand, the narrator of the book, John Dowell, who has inherited sizable wealth from his Philadelphia family, does not tell us precisely how much money he has. He comes across as a coy, deceptive figure, coldly observing nothing while pretending that he experiences imaginary and inappropriate emotions on almost every page. But he does go on for a couple of pages, telling us in detail the fact that he has inherited $2,000,000 or something from the death of his wife Florence, and the fact that he is willing to put $1,000,000 of that into establishing a heart clinic back in Connecticut, or wherever, despite the fact that Florence only pretended to have a heart condition in order to prevent Dowell from ever consummating their marriage. In the end, he says that it is all absolutely of no interest to him what they do with the money - let them make a lung clinic out of it, or whatever - and he gives them $1,500,000 in order to be done with the whole business so that he can return quickly to Europe and all of the pseudo-emotional adventures he might find there. Therefore we imagine that his wealth is something on the order of $5,000,000 or so. Again, converting this into today's money, we find that it comes to perhaps $100,000,000. For ordinary mortals, this seems to be a lot. Given a 5% return on capital - a reasonable figure back in 1910, before the banks reduced the rate of interest to zero - we see that he was very much wealthier than Edward Ashburnham.
    I had at first thought that a book which was so much concerned with money, and with the fact that wealthy people continuously seek that happy state which is denied them - namely having a loving partner to accompany them through the twists and turns of life - would be a boring read. In fact I have only read it because it is the next book for our little reading circle; and indeed, the meeting is scheduled to take place next time in our garden. So hopefully it will turn out to be a warm, sunny summer's day for our discussion.
    But no! The book was not at all boring. I have just read it in two or three days, and I enjoyed all the drama with Florence and Leonora and Nancy and John and "Ted". It is not written in the heavy-handed, earnest style which is usual in these kinds of books, exemplified in particular by the various tomes of Henry James. On the contrary, I think that it is a funny satire on all of that. It is written in a kind of "stream-of-consciousness" style, as if you are listening to a very long story, told to you by a friend in a pub, or something, rambling on back and forth with all sorts of loose ends which get picked up from time to time. The characters are so ridiculously unbelievable that you often have to laugh. So it turned out to be an enjoyable read.

The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

     This is a translation of the original Spanish novel into English by Lucia Graves, who is the daughter of Robert Graves. I suppose one could say that it is a kind of Gothic novel. Horror, torture, decaying mansions, love, hatred, and so forth. A complicated story. The coincidences needed to carry the plot are often ridiculous. Nevertheless, I much enjoyed reading it, gradually coming to the end of the whole story where we meet the shadowy characters which until then had seemed unreal. It would be nonsense to try to summarize the plot here. Suffice it to say that it begins with the 10-year-old Danial being initiated into the secrets of the second-hand book trade by his father. He brings him to the gloomy caverns of the "Cemetery of Forgotten Books" in Barcelona. It is a maze of passages, stairs, shelves, covered with thousands of obscure and forgotten books, hidden in one of those vast, ancient Spanish buildings which we associate with the Spanish Inquisition. Danial is told that he may choose at random one of the forgotten books from amongst the dust and cobwebs. He happens to choose "The Shadow of the Wind", by Julián Carax. And as he finds out more about the life of the author, he becomes involved in this whole Gothic adventure.
    In a way, the book resembles "The Spanish Bow", which I just read a month or two ago. But unlike Andromeda Romano-Lax, with her seemingly extravagant Latino name, Carlos Ruiz Zafón really is a Spaniard. Therefore his outpourings on the beauty and mystery of Barcelona are somewhat more convincing than those of Andromeda. But to be honest, I am not especially attracted to Spain.

    The only time I have been to Barcelona was in the summer of 1980, or thereabouts. It was a conference on something which I thought might be interesting. When registering for the conference, the application form asked which category of hotel was required. So I just ticked the square for middle-class hotels. After all, on the one hand the expense of a luxury hotel seemed unnecessary and on the other hand, who knows what the cheapest category might offer? Maybe something approaching the dreadful level of squalor which some of the characters in this book were forced to endure!
    So I arrived with a planeload of other people, landing at the Barcelona airport in the bright Spanish sun. The passengers filed past the customs officer who barely looked at their passports or identity cards. But upon seeing my Australian passport, he gave me an unfriendly look and told me to stand aside, so that he could wave the remaining passengers through. When I was left alone standing at the gate he examined my passport minutely, seeming to discover some sort of problem. Unfortunately he was incapable of speaking English, so he led me to a small, windowless room and signaled for me to wait. After some time another officer, who seemed to be slightly more educated than the first one, came into the room and spoke to me in English. He informed me that my passport failed to contain a visa for Spain. The fact that this was necessary was news to me! After all, millions of tourists just drive there every year for their holidays. I suppose the problem was Gibraltar and the traditional hatred the Spanish have for the English, and thus the derived hatred for the British Commonwealth, of which Australia is a member. The officer was very suspicious of my motives for visiting Spain. But I did happen to have brought with me a letter which the organizers of the conference wrote, giving the details of where the meetings were to be held, and so forth. The officer fingered the letter with distaste, sensing that it would no longer be possible to deport me from the country so easily. But he did go to the trouble of dialing a telephone number which he found in the letter, and having a talk with some professor or other in the organization committee of the conference. Admitting defeat with little grace, he kept my passport and instructed me to go to the cigarette kiosk of the airport and buy so many pesetas worth of coupons which I then gave him in return for a visa. It was quite expensive. I suppose the equivalent of 50 euros or so, and the visa was only valid for a stay of 4 days, or whatever the length of the conference was.
    And thus I entered Barcelona, having an inkling of the feeling Julián Carax of this book must have felt on similar occasions. It was a Spanish heat-wave. A century of heat (100°F, or even more!). In those days, the sewage system of Barcelona didn't seem to be working properly. Since I haven't returned since then, I don't know if it has been repaired in the meantime. All I can say is that the whole city stank disgracefully of sewage. My middle-class hotel was clean and civilized, if hardly luxurious. The conference was in the rooms of some sort of ancient palace which had seen more luxurious times in past centuries. I got into conversation with a Swedish professor who told me that he was staying in a youth-hostel, where he was sleeping in his sleeping-bag. He was very happy to have saved himself the expense of all that hotel money by organizing these private arrangements.
    The first talk got off with an introduction to the subject of the conference. And it was explained that the thing which I was interested in, and which I had thought was to be the subject of the conference, did not belong here. After the morning session, people gathered together to discuss what had been said during the first talks. I wanted to ask a few questions too, but gradually it became clear that the Invited Speakers, whose hotel bills in hotels of the luxury category were being paid for by the conference, were waiting for the non-Invited Speakers to drift away so that they could retire together to a restaurant of the luxury category, paid for by the conference. Neither I nor the Swedish professor happened to be Invited Speakers, so we walked out into the hot, foul air of Barcelona and looked for some cheap place to eat.
    Obviously I was fed up with the whole business, so I sought out the offices of Lufthansa to change my return ticket to the next available flight. But I think I was forced to stay on for a day or two, which I spent exploring the sights of Barcelona on foot. Walking up and down the famous "La Rambla" innumerable times. (My hotel was directly on the Rambla.) Both this book, and also that of Andromeda, dwell again and again on the fascination of that boulevard. I was not impressed. I was disgusted by the peddlers of small song-birds, who had huge numbers of tiny cages, each containing a single bird, stacked into high columns of pathetic tweets. At regular intervals groups of Guardia-Civil police were lounging about with their stupid-looking hats. They looked dangerous. Leering at young women, perhaps with a wolf-whistle, laughing and knowing that everybody was afraid of them. The evil of the Fumero of the book obviously still existed - if perhaps only to a weakened degree - in the Barcelona of 1980, despite the fact that Franco was long dead by that time.
    I walked around the harbor, looking at the statue of Christopher Columbus. It is hardly the place for a romantic rendezvous, as described in this book. I was surprised to see that it is not a natural harbor, rather just an artificial breakwater, despite the fact that it has been a center of maritime commerce for millennia. Also I climbed up the towers of Gaudi's Sagrada Família, which had been completed then. In contrast to traditional cathedrals, where an ancient church was gradually expanded and then in the middle ages converted into a massive stone monument, crowned at the end with soaring towers, the Sagrada Família consisted of just the towers and nothing else. A couple of desultory workmen stood around a small cement mixer, perhaps beginning to think about organizing a church to go with the towers.
    Finally I was able to check out of the hotel and get over to the airport before my visa expired. At the hotel reception I asked for the bill, only to be told with a generous smile that there was nothing to pay. The Spanish Government had graciously taken it upon itself to treat us to free accommodation! And thus the poor Swedish professor, huddling in his sleeping bag in a room full of snoring youth-hostel inhabitants, turned out to have had the most expensive arrangement of all.

Jump, by Nadine Gordimer

     This is a book of short stories, first published in 1991. The author is a white South African. She was born near Johannesburg in 1923, her parents having immigrated from Europe a short time before. She was very much part of the anti-apartheid movement, and it is said that when he was finally released from prison, she was one of the first people Nelson Mandela wanted to see.
    The stories are different from what we are used to reading when we think of the short story. The main character in Gordimer's stories is Africa, and the fact that people of European ancestry - even those whose ancestors have lived in Africa for many generations - are strangers who do not really belong. So these white South Africans, while being the subjects of the stories, have no particular characteristics to make them interesting in themselves. Instead it is always Africa, the main character, which is being described.
    For example the story "Keeping Fit" describes a white urban executive setting out for an early-morning run, I suppose on a Sunday morning, along the roads somewhere. His run takes him away from his safe, protected, wealthy suburb, and he continues past various shanty-towns where the poor blacks are crowded together in an unpleasant chaos of poverty and squalor. Suddenly a large mob of people emerge from one of these shanty-towns onto the road, enveloping the runner. He is frightened. Will they attack him? But no. They are running after another black man who is running for his life. The mob catches its prey and kills the man with knives, kicking him brutally when he is down. The frightened runner tries to run away from the mob and suddenly a woman grabs him and pulls him indoors into her hovel, away from the danger of the mob. Gradually he sees the rest of the family and tries to thank them, but there is no basis for communication. They live in different worlds. When the danger is past, he runs home.
    Just now, as I write this, South Africa is hosting the World Cup of Football. This evening (it is June 13, 2010) Germany will play Australia in the newly built football stadium in Durban. A magnificent architectural achievement which may be an inspiration for future generations to transcend these old conflicts of the past and instead to work together to build a better society. (As far as the outcome of this evening's game is concerned, I will be happy if either team wins. Hopefully it will turn out to be a better match than the uninspiring and destructive pairing of France vs. Uruguay in Capetown which we saw on Friday evening.)
    But despite all the changes in the last 20 years, I am sure that much of what Gordimer writes in these stories is just as true today as it was back in the days of apartheid.
    In North and South America, we think of the European settlement of those continents as being a matter of waves of aggressive colonists overrunning the original native population. And yet the first people to reach the Americas only came there 12 or 15 thousand years ago. Or perhaps, according to other theories which are pursued by excited theorists, the original settlement of the Americas might have taken place 20 or 30 thousand years ago. Australia was first settled 40 thousand years ago - or perhaps even earlier. So we think of the Aborigines of Australia as the great, ancient, People of the Earth. But of course all of this does not compare with Africa! That huge continent where everything began.
    The Europeans emerged as a tribe from Africa many tens of thousands of years ago. And while we may imagine a longing to return to that ancient center of life, with all its excesses in the middle of the most magnificent landscapes of the world, still, the "white" people of the world - the people of European ancestry - remain strangers to Africa.

The Songlines, by Bruce Chatwin

     Bruce Chatwin had a short life, dying of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 49, poisoning himself with massive doses of AZT. This is the last book which he published in his lifetime. Perhaps he wanted to use this book to have his final say about things.
    Of course his books were concerned with travel. I had read his In Patagonia before reading this one. He had a beautiful style of writing. We can imagine the cold, windswept open spaces of South America. He also published books of his own photography, dwelling particularly on the bright colors of Africa. He seems to have been continuously traveling, amassing tremendous numbers of facts and thoughts, reflections on all that he had seen and all of the people he met. Everything was written down in his travel notebooks, and in fact he has been responsible for the revival of a kind of stylish French notebook called the Moleskine.
    The Songlines is concerned with a trip he made to Australia in 1983. He was interested in learning about the Aborigines of Australia, and so he hitched up with a person named Anatoly Sawenko, who was an expert on Aboriginal culture, having intimate contacts with the tribes-people around Alice Springs. Sawenko introduces Bruce Chatwin to various characters, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. Thus the book becomes a long narrative of Chatwin's relationship with Sawenko, together with a host of other people during his stay in Australia.
    Anatoly Sawenko is given a fictional name, namely "Arkady", in the book. When the book was published, Chatwin said that it was a novel, although it describes in much personal detail the actual characters he was writing about. In the Introduction to the book, it is said that the real-life Anatoly Sawenko was shocked to see that much of his private life, and that of his friends, was exposed to public view - often in a very unflattering, even libelous manner.
    Be that as it may, the idea which fascinates Chatwin is concerned with what Aborigines do when they go "walkabout". Apparently they follow lines through the landscape, going from place to place, each of which is identified with some animal, or object of the Dreamtime of the ancestors long ago. Each of these sacred sites is part of a vast song, giving a kind of map of Australia. The wanderer sings the song and thus brings to life the landscape itself. I suppose this can be compared with Plato's idea of forms. The word, describing the ideal form of the thing, is reality, and the countless imperfect examples of the form are the stuff of the lower life of the Earth. Thus, according to Chatwin, if an Aborigine forgets his song, his Dreaming, then in a sense he dies, and along with it even the landscape, his Songline, disappears. These Songlines are recorded as drawings on stones, or pieces of wood, called Tjuringas (or Churingas). If an Aborigine loses his tjuringa, then in a sense he has lost his soul.
    But of course in the modern world, as with the icons of Russia, these Tjuringas can simply be bought over the Internet, to hang on your wall as an amusing example of primitive art. For example here is an Internet site offering various Tjuringas for prices between $500 and $1000.
    It is difficult to know how seriously we are to take Bruce Chatwin's observations. On the one hand he describes the cynical exploitation of the Aborigines by certain people dealing with them. For example, these days much money is to be made from Aboriginal dot-paintings. (And Chatwin - in an earlier life - was himself a leading art expert for the London auction house Sotheby's.) An overbearing woman arrives at an Aboriginal camp, shouting at the people, and offering to buy a large canvas for $400 or so. Yet she will sell it in her tourist shop in Sydney or Adelaide for $7,000!
    Then on the other hand, Chatwin goes on about his conversations with Aborigines as if they are opening themselves to him, the great traveler, telling him their most intimate secrets. But why should they be doing that? Who is this English writer who drifts casually into and out of their lives, imagining that he knows everything? Surely they tell him as much nonsense as they tell the unpleasant woman driving around from camp to camp, buying their canvases for a pittance.
    He describes the rough, aggressive atmosphere in the bars of Alice Springs. The contempt many Aborigines openly display towards the white people, and the primitive racialism of many of the white farmers. Out in the bush, away from Alice Springs, a group of Aborigines offers to take him on a hunting expedition. But this turns into a sickening round of senseless cruelty, with the group driving wildly through the bush, colliding with a kangaroo and its young, ramming it many times before finally running over it with the car to mutilate it sufficiently to bring about its horrible death. I suppose they were simply trying to humiliate Chatwin, and everything he stood for.
    Towards the end, the book becomes filled with long passages of linked jottings from his travel notebooks, especially those he wrote in Africa, in Arabia, South America. Philosophizing about the forces which contributed to human evolution. And about the difference between wandering peoples - nomads - and sedentary peoples who farm the land or live in cities. He sees goodness in the wanderer, and evil in the stick-at-home. There are many interesting, erudite ideas here, away from the harsh reality of life in the Far Outback of Australia.

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

   The author is an Australian whose mother is German. The idea of the book is that the narrator is "death" itself. Thus Death tells us the story of Liesel Meminger, whose parents were communists in the Germany of the 1930s. As a result, they were "disappeared" under the Nazi regime, leaving Liesel alone in the world to be brought up in a poverty-stricken foster family. We imagine that such a story might enable us to gain some insights into the way things really were during the second world war - as an alternative to all of those countless Hollywood movies on the subject.
    Unfortunately though, Markus Zusak makes many obvious mistakes. For example, one character, when spewing his Nazi nonsense, refers to the "motherland" in the book. Yet surely everybody knows - not least from the questionable knowledge imparted upon us by Hollywood - that in the German language, the appropriate word is "fatherland", not motherland. Perhaps Markus Zusak was confused in his thoughts here, juxtaposing Hitler with the unfortunate character of Sadam Hussian, who famously described the first Gulf War as the "mother" of all battles.
    Liesel's foster mother, while not being a basically evil character, nevertheless is continuously swearing at people. Her favorite expression is "Saumensch", occasionally varied to "Saukerl" when referring to her husband. Although I have been living here in Germany for the past 35 years, I have never heard these combinations uttered as actual words. Of course I must also say that I have not had a great deal of intercourse with people who might be imagined to utter such epithets. Perhaps these words were in general usage 70 or 80 years ago and have now become antiquated. Or perhaps they are still used amongst the bucolic population of southern Germany, around Munich, which is the setting for the story.
    The word "Sau" in the German language refers to a female pig. (In English, the word is the same, merely spelled differently - "sow".) A male pig is called an "Eber" (in English it is "boar"). In common language, the word "Sau" appears more often than "Eber". It is used as a kind of exaggerated substitute for the word "very". Thus if something is very good, then the ruder sections of society would say that the thing is "sau gut". On the other hand, for example if they are feeling rather sick, then such people might say that they feel "sau schlecht".
    It is tedious to dwell on such things, but in the book the two words "Saumensch" and "Saukerl" are repeated literally hundreds of times! So - unfortunately - it is impossible to ignore them.
    This, and the fact that the book is written as a naïve children's story, put me off. But continuing on, it did turn out to be good read. Nevertheless, other things beyond these language problems also struck me as false.
    As I think I wrote somewhere else in these book reviews, up until the era of George W. Bush, I saw no reason to doubt the usual Hollywood version of the second world war. But in the last few years, I have often tried to imagine what it was like here in Germany 70 years ago. Clearly death was very much in the air. In old films we can see the huge military spectacles which the Nazis put on. Thousands of soldiers standing in geometric patterns, creating a wide, empty avenue for Hitler to walk alone in silent solemnity into some sort of temple. The Temple of Death, presumably to worship the God of Death who is the narrator of this book. What did the people think when seeing such spectacles?
    But this whole orgy of death began well before Hitler. Stalin killed untold millions in the 1930s, and the Japanese invasion of Manchuria also increased things considerably. I am sure that many people in Germany were afraid of the Russians and of the huge waves of death which they were causing. And of course the perceived wrongs following from the Versailles agreements, following the first world war, contributed much to all of this.
    Just near here, south of Bielefeld in the town of Stuckenbrock, was the site of Stalag VI-K. This was just one of many prisoner of war camps throughout Germany. I have found this website describing them. It is horrible to read. It is thought that around 65,000 Russian POWs died in Stalag VI-K alone. (It is estimated that about 60% of the Russian POWs died in captivity. And after the end of the war, a large percentage of the survivors were then directly killed on Stalin's orders, or else sent to further concentration camps in Siberia. - Contrast this with the experiences of the American and British POWs, where only 3.6% died! After liberation, they returned to write their jolly little books about their interesting war experiences.)
    How much of all this was seen by the "normal" people of Germany, such as the Liesel and her foster parents of the story? Certainly the Russian prisoners were made to labor in the factories and farms of Germany, so they must have been visible. But as I understand it, the Jewish people were sent by train to the concentration camps, and the Nazis created the illusion that they were being sent to a new homeland, somewhere to the east. Thus it seems unlikely that they would be paraded through the streets in recurring death marches as described in the book.
    In total, it is thought that 60 million people died as a result of the war. Of course it is our fate that we will all die, just as we have all been born. So I have no real sympathy with the idea of creating a God of Death, to celebrate the whole business. Surely a God of Birth should then also be created, and it should be as much celebrated or feared as the God of Death. But more important is the time we live, between birth and death. It is terrible if this time is dominated by the horrible things that occurred during the 1930s and 40s.

The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls

   This is the true story of the childhood of the author, Jeannette Walls. Now, or at least until a few years ago, she was a gossip columnist, revealing the private lives of the celebrities of New York to the cold glare of public exposure. Apparently one of her most successful forays was the "outing" of Drudge, the conservative blogger, as a homosexual, despite the fact that he would have preferred to have this aspect of his life remain his own private business. In order to obtain such information on the private lives of well-known people, Jeannette Walls continuously attended cocktail parties, dinners, art shows, and so on, eavesdropping on the latest gossip. All of this seems to me to be a most disagreeable profession to follow. In this link, you can see a video of Jeannette Walls, talking about her book. She has a rapid, nervous way of speaking. But perhaps the success of this book has lead her into a new way of life, away from gossip. And I see that she has recently published a novel.
    But the present book is the story of her life as a child, the daughter of rootless, hippie-like people of the 1960s. Her father was a drunk, totally dependent upon a large consumption of whiskey. She relates how he once tried to become "dry", but this was only achieved after many days of horrible withdrawal symptoms: delirium tremens. Her mother was a qualified teacher who imagined herself to be an artist. Rather than doing something useful in life, she wasted her time painting pictures which nobody wanted.
    Thus the two degenerate parents and their four children lurched from one place to another in California, Arizona, and what have you, looking through the garbage of others for things to eat, sleeping in one or another old jalopy which they happened to have obtained somewhere. Eventually they ended up in Welch, West Virgina, which was the hometown of the drunken father. Although Welch is considered to be one of the worst examples of back-of-the-woods, hillbilly poverty, the Walls family lived in a state of squalor which even there was thought to be revolting. The parents were too "proud" to accept any financial help. The few dollars which somehow trickled into the family were quickly stolen by the father, who then disappeared for days on end, wasting it in drunken orgies at the local bars. The mother, when not painting, hid what little food she had from her children, eating it herself, leaving them to scavenge in the garbage cans of the neighboring hillbillies.
    What a depressing thing to read! And yet the book was on the best-selling list of the New York Times for 100 weeks, or something. But what is so special about this story? The unfortunate reality is that recent developments in the U.S.A. - perhaps especially starting with the catastrophic "Reagenomics" of the 1980s - has lead to millions of people becoming homeless, living rough on the street. Thus this story is a commonplace. It is not just the traditional hillbilly "white trash" which lives like this. Even middle-class suburban Americans can imagine being dragged down to the state of living off the garbage of others.
    The thing that lifts this story above the majority of such tales of squalor is the fact that the three older children were able to escape from the situation. They managed to do well at school, and they formed a plan to escape to New York. Each of them spent long hours doing odd jobs in the town, putting the few dollars they earned into a secret hiding place away from the parents, the idea being that that would enable the oldest sister, Lori, to get started on a better life when she graduated from high school. Then the others could come afterward on the basis of the existence she would establish. But in one of the most depressing scenes of the book, the father finds the money, representing the dreams of his children, and takes it for his own drunken debauchery.
    Despite this, the three of them have become successful in their various endeavors. Unfortunately, the youngest daughter was not able to follow them, and instead, from the description at the end of the book, it seems that she has succumbed to the usual fate of children who have the misfortune to be born into such a family.
    At the end of the book, Jeannette Walls is shocked to discover that her mother had long ago inherited land in Texas which was valued at a million dollars! The reader can only speculate on the reasons such a woman could have to justify her abominable behavior.

Don't Sleep, there are Snakes, by Daniel Everett

   This is again a true story, not a novel. The author was a christian missionary in 1977, and he was assigned the task of learning the language of an obscure tribe of Indians in the Amazon, the Pirahã. The Pirahã are not to be confused with the Piranha - those nasty little fish of the Amazon which, according to common lore, will tear into the flesh of anybody who is silly enough to actually go swimming in the Amazon, reducing things to the bare skeleton in a matter of seconds. The author, and all the members of the Pirahã tribe regularly swam in the river, thus falsifying this fantasy of modern western civilization.
    The reason Daniel Everett was supposed to learn the language of the Pirahã was in order to translate the New Testament of the Bible into their language. One or two of the missionaries before him, who had attempted the task, had been unable to make sense of the language. And thus our intrepid missionary, the author, was dropped into the jungle in a small bush airplane, later to be joined by his wife and their two or three small children - barely out of the toddler stage of life.
    He has stayed there, on and off, for the last 30 years, becoming a controversial figure in the field of linguistics. During his time back in the U.S.A., between jungle sojourns, he has forged an extremely successful academic career, where he has become Professor and Head of Department of Linguistics at various universities.
    This is not to say that life in the jungle is a wonderful thing. One is constantly being bitten by swarms of mosquitoes and those horrible biting flies whose bite is much more painful than that of the mosquito. The body is ravaged by malaria, yellow fever, and all those other tropical sicknesses. Worm-like parasites penetrate the outer defenses of the body, causing further sickness. Yet, at least at the beginning, Daniel Everett was driven by the thought that he should expose himself and his family to all of these hardships in order to "save" these obscure tribes-people by "converting" them into becoming believers in Jesus.
    The problem was that the Pirahã were quite happy with life as it is. For the past 300 years or more they have been approached from time to time by these missionaries, and it has never made the slightest impression upon them. They go through life smiling and laughing, delighted with the day-to-day functioning of the world. Unlike almost all other Indian tribes of South America, they have not lost themselves in a hopeless envy of the "advantages" of modern civilization; going "native" by forgetting their own language and speaking only the Portuguese of the Brazilians; living off the things which more "fortunate" people have chosen to discard, or donated with a sense of religious charity. No! The Pirahã know that they are happy, living in a paradise - a utopia which is far more profound than that questionable "Utopia" of religious fanatics envisioned by Sir Thomas Moore back in 1516. The Pirahã have no concept of sin, or guilt. They are happy, and they would like others to be happy with them.
    Daniel Everett soon realized that his own religion was nonsense, and he discarded it. Unfortunately though, his wife and children remained devoted to their beliefs, and so he refrained from telling them of his conversion to reality for many years, only doing so just before writing this book. And thus his wife, upon learning that he was no longer a believer in Jesus, divorced him, and at least from what we can gather from his entry in the Wikipedia, she still remains stubbornly estranged. Thus, as Lucretius wrote over 2000 years ago, such is the weight of Superstition, producing terror and gloom in the mind of the believer.
    As Everett gradually came to realize, the life and philosophy (or rather lack of philosophy) of the Pirahã is largely determined by their language. Their sentences are extremely simple. In a number of places, typical stories are quoted, both in the original language and in a literal translation into English. For example, here is the story of how somebody killed a panther.

1. Here the jaguar pounced upon my dog, killing him.
2. There the jaguar pounced on my dog, killing him. It happened with respect to me.
3. There the jaguar killed the dog by pouncing on it.
4. With respect to it, the jaguar pounced on the dog. I thought I saw it.
5. Then I, thus the panther, pounced on my dog.
6. Then the panther pounced on my dog.

... etc. etc. etc. gradually getting to the point ...

22. It wanted to pounce on the dog. It really wanted to.
23. Then I was talking, then Kaapási, he, animal, he ...,
24. Don't shoot from far away. Be shooting down on it.

... etc. etc. ... finally ...

39. Now the Pirahãs have just now shot a jaguar, right now.
40. Then the Pirahãs are intensely afraid of panthers. OK, I'm done.

During the telling of this story, the listeners think it is wonderful. They are laughing, enjoying the words, hardly restraining themselves from adding in their own comments. In the background are other groups of people, telling similar stories, going on and on like this for hours on end. Even right through the night the village is filled with endless chatter and laughter (the Pirahãs don't believe in sleep; thus the title of the book).
    Of course a cynical, sophisticated member of the modern world might say that the reason for the laughter of the Pirahãs is that they are laughing at the astonishing inability of the speaker to express himself in anything more than the most primitive, basic forms imaginable. But no! The listeners are thoroughly enjoying the story, just as they enjoy real life, for they know that this is not a collection of meaningless thoughts. Instead it is what really happened to the speaker. And they know exactly what it feels like to be in just that sort of life and death situation in the jungle.
    The Pirahã are only concerned with immediate experience. They have no words to describe abstract things, stories about imaginary situations. Thus they have no words for numbers, or colors. Also there is no word to describe family relations going beyond grandparents, since jungle life precludes further trans-generational experience. They have no creation myths of the kind which consume the thoughts of the Australian Aborigines, or the believers in Christianity (or indeed, modern physicists). For them, the world simply exists, and they have no way of worrying about what would happen if it did not exist.
    All of this contradicts the basic tenants of linguistic theory. As Everett describes it, in the old days, say the 1930s or so, if you wanted to become a professor of linguistics, then you had to go out into the "field" - say the Amazon, or New Guinea, or whatever - and learn some strange, previously unknown language. But then along came Noam Chomsky, the father of modern linguistics. His theory - the modern way of looking at language - is that language is something which distinguishes people from animals. The compulsion to speak is part of human genetics, an instinct, and this instinct is reflected in the common structures which all human languages share. Chomsky's theory has developed into a full-blown academic structure, with a language all its own. For example these linguists speak of "recursion" in a language, meaning apparently the fact that sentences may contain sub-sentences. (Recursion in mathematics or computer science is something totally different from this.) If you take the trouble to click into Noam Chomsky's homepage, then you will be confronted with his prodigious output of books, papers, debates, etc., etc. So many thoughts. So many abstractions. The knowledge we have of this "Universal Grammar" of Chomsky is obtained through deep philosophical speculation - presumably thinking about the English language - sitting comfortably in the ivory tower of MIT (and Everett tells us that for a time, his office at MIT was just across the hall from that of Chomsky), rather than wasting time in the uncomfortable "field".
    A few years ago I had a phase of listening to the daily Internet program "Democracy Now", with Amy Goodman. A frequent guest was Noam Chomsky, not speaking about his Universal Grammar, but rather about the various failings and outrages which have taken place recently in the United States. He has a droning, monotonous voice. Unlike the Pirahã Indians, I can hardly imagine anybody laughing, or even smiling when listening to the long-winded pronouncements of Chomsky. His arguments are meticulously founded upon facts, and for each of those facts, he provides the listener with a reference from the literature. Yet, in the end, I have the feeling he has said nothing. He has smothered us with words concerning the so-called "War on Terror", replete with hundreds of references from the literature. But this is just talking about what other people are talking about, who are themselves talking about what other people are talking about, and so on, and so forth. This is a true state of "recursion" which, in this instance, seems to be built upon nothing. Why are we in this fictitious "War on Terror"? Who is responsible? How do we get out of it? Chomsky is not interested in such questions.
    And, of course, the Pirahã language falsifies Chomsky's linguistics. It does not contain many of structures which are supposed to be part of the Universal Grammar. It also falsifies many of the theories of anthropologists, who maintain that every human society must have a creation myth. But it seems to me that it also demonstrates the fact that we cannot say that humans have a language instinct, whereas all other animals do not have this instinct. If you sit on the porch of a house in Australia then you will often see a number of Kookaburras sitting on a branch looking at you, and it is easy to imagine that they are discussing what all these crazy humans are doing. Who knows what they are able to communicate amongst themselves? Some kinds of crows and magpies have been shown to exhibit remarkable intelligence. Orangutans are known to have solved puzzles which have defied the abilities of human university students.
    Philosophers down through the ages have maintained that the purpose of philosophy is to free the mind from needless worry. To learn to live in the present and to accept with stoicism life as it is. Yet the Pirahã have attained this state without philosophy! Their language is simply incapable of expressing philosophical ideas.
    I was interested to read that at one stage of Everett's stay, they expressed the ambition to learn about numbers, since they had the feeling that the Brazilian traders who occasionally came up the river to trade were cheating them. Thus Everett and his wife conducted a seminar each afternoon for months on end which was enthusiastically attended by many of the villagers, with the purpose of teaching them numbers. But he says that after all that time, they just gave up, still being unable to comprehend the difference between 1, 2, and 3.
    How is this possible? Were the Everetts wildly incompetent teachers?
    In fact mathematics itself is nothing more than the process of following logical rules of deduction, based upon abstract, imaginary structures whose meaning is given by the context in which the structures are used. A few semesters ago I had a lecture on set theory, and to start things off I said that the words we use do not describe specific things, but rather they describe sets of things.
    For example, in the title of the present book, "Don't sleep, there are snakes", the word "snakes" does not refer to a specific thing - one particular snake which may, or may not be lurking in the jungle. Rather it refers to a large set of possible things, namely all the dangerous snakes in the neighborhood. Similarly the words "computer", or "car", and so forth, are in each case a description of a set of things. (The "form" of the thing in Plato's terminology.) The computer which I am typing into at this moment is a particular instance of the form of a "computer". It is a specific element within the set of all computers. All of this seems so natural and obvious that we do not even think about it in these terms. Then numbers represent a further stage of abstraction; they are really sets of sets.
    So what is the moral of this book about the Pirahã Indians? Is it that happiness is to be attained by reducing language to the bare necessities, leaving out all possibilities for formulating abstract thoughts which might trouble the mind? While this may be true, it is still something which is repulsive to my mind. Daniel Everett tells us that he has devoted his life to understanding the language and the thinking of the Pirahãs. And for my part, I have followed the example of the ancient Greeks, believing that the true nature of the world is to be discovered using words and the rules of logic, devoting my life to what I understand to be truth.

Alex and Me, by Irene Pepperberg

   In the Tales of the Brothers Grimm, there are many animals which speak, letting people participate in their words of wisdom. Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book is filled with animals speaking with one another. But modern people, living in their cities behind layers of concrete and glass, have lost contact with the rest of the animal kingdom. Animals generally don't speak English, and even the few parrots who have managed to pick up a smattering of English words don't seem to tell us anything of a profound nature. Thus the idea developed that animals are nothing but robots, machines which respond to given stimuli with pre-programmed responses. This is the idea of modern "science". According to this idea, "scientific" description of animal behavior can only be carried out using experiments modeled upon the plan of the usual experiments in say chemistry, or physics. Namely, the results must be reproducible. If you chain a monkey into a standard position in the lab, and apply an electrical shock, then given that the monkey is a mere robot, its response, namely a shriek of pain, should be the same after each application. Such is the state of "scientific" discourse in the realms of animal behavior today.
    But anyone who is prepared to open his eyes to reality knows that this cruel, horrible, "scientific" vision of life is pure nonsense. Anyone who has lived in Australia and watched the flocks of parrots moving about, chattering amongst themselves, sees a whole world of life which is beyond our understanding. And not only the parrots, the crows and all the other kinds of birds are an ever-present part of life in Australia.
    It seems that of all the different kinds of parrots in the world, the African Grey Parrot is most able to reproduce the sounds humans make when they speak with one another. Thus they are a favorite kind of "pet" for people to have around the house, perhaps picking up the occasional sound-bite, such as "Polly want a cracker", and so forth. But surely it is also a cruel thing to keep such a bird as a "pet". The only reason they pick up such sounds is that they are desperately lonely, being confined in their cages for years on end. They are meant to fly about, chattering constantly with all their friends in the flock, being part of the ever-changing patterns of nature, the colors and sounds of the open air. What a poor, sad thing it is for some lonely person to buy such a parrot in a pet shop and then confine it in the closed, lifeless air of a room in a house. Does that lonely person really imagine that the poor, imprisoned bird is a true "friend"? It would be better if such lonely people get themselves dogs. At least the dog has been part of a symbiotic relationship with humans for many thousands of years, losing the "call of the wild" of the wolf, and I suppose much of the intelligence of the wolf as well.
    But even dogs, as any dog owner knows well, are able to express themselves with great eloquence - "speaking", if one wants to call it that. A dog has hundreds of things it can say, starting from the sentence "I am hungry", to "Let's go for a walk", and most importantly, the sentence "I love you!". It doesn't say them using English words, and it definitely does not say them in a reproducible "scientific" manner.
    Irene Pepperberg's idea was to go down to the local pet shop and buy some African Grey Parrot at random, and then spend the next 30 years intensively training it to say English words. This was Alex. He was trained for 8 to 10 hours each day by Pepperberg, together with a long succession of devoted students at the various universities with which she was associated. At the end of all this time, it seems that Alex developed hardening of the arteries and then he died of a heart attack. But he was able to speak some hundred English words, using them in the proper context. Pepperberg's goal was apparently to "prove" that parrots were not robots, even when that "proof" adhered to the principles of modern "scientific" investigation. Of course that goal was hardly worthwhile. How can one prove that nonsense is nonsense using nonsense?
    Thus her real goal was to falsify the various modern theories of language, especially those associated with the figure of Noam Chomsky (and in this connection, see the review of the book "Don't sleep, there are snakes", which I have just read before reading this one). But why does a poor little bird have to go through with all this simply in order to falsify Chomsky? It seems to me that if we let Chomsky carry on with his voluminous pronouncements, then the various contradictions and qualifications which emerge will gradually suffice in the eyes of the world to produce a self-falsification of Chomsky.
    Even after all those 30 years of training, Alex was unable to say very much in English. We feel sorry for him. It was not his natural language. I am reminded of a quote which Boswell attributed to Dr. Johnson. In this modern world it is an extremely politically incorrect quotation! Namely, as with the present-day Catholic Church, with its supreme leader, the pope, he was opposed to the ordination of women as priests. He said, "Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."
    And so this whole story of Alex made me sad. I am afraid it will encourage hoards of lonely people to go to their local pet shops and buy themselves African Grey Parrots. But at least the majority of birds in the world are still free to pursue their lives in the wideness of nature, not imprisoned by selfish humanity.

The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge, by Patricia Duncker

   This is a novel about esoteric sects. People going off into the snowy woods in the mountains of France during a New Year's night (which, of course is not the moment when the northern hemisphere of the Earth is tilted furthest from the Sun - that is on the 21st or 22nd of December), lying face upwards to the stars, drinking some fatal potion, and imagining in the moments before the final plunge into oblivion, the exitus from this level of existence, that the spirit will travel upwards into the "next level", rather than that disappointing "game over" which has frustrated countless computer-players over the years.
    The heroine of the book, Dominique Carpentier, is the kind of judge within the French legal system who doesn't sit on the legal bench; rather it is her responsibility to gather sufficient information regarding a crime to enable a sensible prosecution to be made. In the present case, one of the group of corpses lying in the French forest has a bullet in the brain, yet there is no firearm present at the scene. Therefore it must be murder. Reference is made to a previous "departure" of this sort in Switzerland some 5 years before the present mass suicide (the story takes place around the year 2000). Whether intended or not, we are reminded of the true story of the Swiss suicide sect of 1994, who named themselves the "Order of the Solar Temple".
    It seems to be the case that not all of these Swiss Solar Templers were totally convinced that the transition from this level to the next would be a good thing. Therefore, in contrast with the spiritual travelers of Duncker's novel, the real life (or death) corpses of the Swiss travelers were a bit of a mess, most of them shot with guns, or violently suffocated, and what have you. Hardly very celestial. And then there were all those people who were murdered in "Jonestown" in Guyana. They were followers of their great guru, Jones. Clicking about in the Internet, one finds various exposés, particularly in YouTube, showing that Jones, or whatever, was concerned with advancing the knowledge of human fallibilities, as an extension to the MK-Ultra program of torture and mind-control which the CIA had developed, or something. But I must admit that I clicked out of that YouTube offering before it ended, since the disgusting details were making me feel sick.
    So, in contrast with these unpleasantly true stories of suicide sects, Patricia Duncker has built her novel around a higher class of esoterics. The guru is Friedrich Grosz, an overbearing German conductor and composer of music. There are some nice descriptions of music in the book. Yes, when we sit for hours in a concert or an opera, perhaps with young singers who are trying with everything they have, truly with heart and soul, to convey the beauty and meaning of the music, then we are carried away into another world. A wonderful world of innocence and truth. It is a kind of mass hypnosis. And this, together with much of the action taking place in the wine fields and chateaus of Southern France, made for an absorbing story. Patricia Duncker writes beautifully. Will the diminutive figure of the judge, Dominique Carpentier, succeed in proving that Herr Grosz is the murderer, or will the conductor entrap the judge in his art and in Truth?
    As with a murder mystery, I read on into the small hours of the morning in order to find out what happens. But in the end, I had the feeling that the book was slightly disappointing. It would have improved if the author had seen fit to increase the level of humor, not taking the whole thing so seriously. After all, Christianity itself is a kind of death cult, whose message is that in the transition from this level to the next, the number of points won or lost (sin results in losing points, good deeds result in gaining points) determine the conditions of the next level.
    The sect, or Faith, in the book is said to be very ancient. It is based upon the observation that the star Epsilon Aurigae, which is found in the constellation Auriga, exhibits a very interesting behavior. Every 27 years its apparent visual magnitude drops from +2.92 to +3.83. The astonishing thing is that this dimming of the star lasts for approximately 700 days. For the ancient Egyptians - at least according to the story of the book - the fact that a reasonably bright star seemingly disappears for two years was an example, or even the basic expression, of the Dark Powers of the Universe.
    Even modern astronomers are unclear about the mechanism which accounts for this dimming of Epsilon Aurigae. (Although I suspect that few would be prepared to defend the theory that it is due to the Powers of the Devil.) Interestingly enough, just at the time I am writing this, Epsilon Aurigae is in one of its periods of eclipse. The most reasonable theory is that it is orbited by a dim companion star which is surrounded by a huge revolving cloud of dust, or rubble, which obscures our view of the main star. This idea has been supported by the observations of the Spitzer Space Telescope, which observed the onset of the eclipse in 2009. Last night, before reading the book to the end, I noticed that, unusually, the night sky over Germany had become clear, and the stars were visible. Thus, after struggling with finding the German name for the Auriga constellation (it is called "Fuhrmann" in German), and confusing the main star, Capella, with the Death Star, Epsilon Aurigae; consulting a star chart we had gotten many years ago, and using binoculars, I was able to identify the dim, eclipsed remains of Epsilon Aurigae, despite all the problems I have had with my eyes recently. But I am afraid that this vision was neither apocalyptic, nor in any way esoteric.
    The fact of the matter is that modern astronomers are far more interested in reality than were the ancient priests of Egypt. We know of many strange, unimaginably apocalyptical phenomena in the universe which are so extreme as to dwarf into total insignificance anything that Epsilon Aurigae can produce. And there are reasonable, logical explanations for these things. Why is it that these esoterical people devote themselves to demonstrably false theories regarding well-known phenomena in the physical world? Wouldn't they do better to follow the practice of the established churches and confine their theories to assertions about an imagined spiritual world which could never be proved or refuted by direct physical observation

Ordinary Thunderstorms, by William Boyd

   A deadly game of hide and seek in modern London. The "good guy" is Adam Kindred, who is supposed to be a climatologist. The "bad guy", who is trying to kill Adam, is a horrible British returned soldier from Afghanistan, a "squaddy" who learned the art of torture, maiming, terror, doing his part to transform that country into the hell which it is today. The name of this ugly killer is JonJo, or at least that is the name his fellow killers in the British Army knew him by. During this game of hide and seek, we encounter the violence and brutality which, at least according to the book, has now descended upon London.
    I have only very seldom visited England. The last time was two years ago, just for a weekend to meet relatives. Somehow - thank goodness - the neighborhood of Primrose Hill does not allow the casual visitor to observe the goings on in "The Shaft", which is apparently a fictional high-rise housing estate of the 1950s, as described in the book. But I can well imagine that such things do exist in real life.
    Is it true that there exist secretive, private security firms which hire those specialist ex-soldiers to work as contract killers? Perhaps.
    Looking at the good guy, Adam Kindred, it is said that he was an Englishman who had attained full tenure at an American College where he was responsible for the largest "cloud chamber" in the world. I had always thought that cloud chambers are used in high-energy physics. But Adam's cloud chamber is a large, empty building, many stories high, into which is blown lots of water in order to make enclosed clouds which can be studied, as in meteorology. Not climatology.
    William Boyd seems to have confused things here since, whereas meteorologists are vitally concerned with clouds, modern climatologists wish that all those complicated, chaotic clouds would simply go away. As has been shown by the "ClimateGate" scandal, they are prepared to involve themselves in glaringly unethical behavior in order to keep the millions and millions of dollars flowing in from the industries making atomic energy, windmills, solar cells, corn to be burned rather than used as food, light bulbs filled with poisonous mercury vapor, and all the hundreds of other wasteful and highly polluting industries which have jumped onto the ClimateGate gravy train. None of these industries are viable by themselves. Instead they exist on the basis of billions, even trillions of dollars of subventions, gained through massive corruption and a mystical, semi-religious belief in a return to the imagined Garden of Eden of the Bible. In reality, clouds must play a determining role when it comes to climate, but they cannot be sensibly understood by way of computer simulations. For example, it has been shown that cosmic rays have much to do with cloud formation, and the intensity of the cosmic rays meeting the earth is influenced by the activity of the sun. There is no money in that, so climatologists assert that the sun and the clouds play no particular role in determining the changing climate.
    But getting back to the book, the story is that Adam Kindred is a rather over-sexed man who, acting on a sudden urge in his cloud chamber, spontaneously and torridly coupled with one of his female students up above the cloud. (William Boyd lost the oppertunity here to give her the most appropriate name in this situation, namely Eve. Instead she has a very American name: Fairfield.) Unfortunately, Fairfield subsequently sent him numbers of emails and other public expressions of her love and admiration for his sexual prowess. Adam, who was married to the daughter of the principle benefactor of the private college, thus immediately lost his job, despite tenure. Therefore his return to London and a job interview at the Imperial College where, from the tenor of the rest of the book, we presume that such sexual adventures will be treated more magnanimously.
    After the interview, a somewhat drained Adam sits alone in an Italian restaurant in Chelsea and gets into conversation with another lone diner. It turns out that this is Phillip Wang, a professor of immunology, or something. He leaves an envelope in the restaurant, seemingly by mistake, and so Adam calls him on his mobile, and agrees to bring it over to him in his hotel room. There he finds Wang, stabbed, with the knife stuck into his side, gasping for Adam to pull it out. Adam does this, producing a gush of blood, Wang expires, and Adam finds himself with his fingerprints all over the knife and Wang's blood all over his clothes. Thus he decides to go into hiding - going "underground". And the killer of Wang, that horrible JonJo, is out to get Adam as well.
    But why did JonJo's security firm get the contract to kill Wang? And why do they want him to find and kill Adam? All of this leads to a complicated story about the corruption in the pharmaceutical industry. Do these drug companies hire killers in order to advance their profits into the billions? Who knows. In any case, I found the plot of the book to be somewhat illogical here.
    Surely though, there is a great deal of corruption involved in all of these dealings with drugs. Most basic research in medicine is done in public-financed universities. Then, given that a new drug is developed by honest researchers in such institutions, immediately the pharmaceutical industry steps in, putting huge funding into making some trivial change in the medicine in order to patent it - undoubtedly accompanied by much bribery - then spending further huge amounts on advertising and on lawyers whose purpose is to terrorize the competition and to insure that the exorbitant prices charged are enforced. One of the worst examples is described in this link, comparing two drugs for the treatment of macular degeneration. As I understand it, at least here in Germany, the use of the expensive drug has been enforced. This alone must result in a drain on the economy of hundreds of millions, if not billions of euros each year!
    Another common scam involves the use of the so-called "orphan drugs". The theory is that there exist obscure diseases which affect only a very few people. Thus the pharmaceutical industry is justified in charging very high prices for the few dosages which they might sell. The scam involves pretending that a given drug is only relevant for some very obscure form of cancer, but then gradually it is "discovered" that it is relevant for more and more kinds of cancer. The combined effect of bribery, litigation, advertising, and whatever else the company behind the scam can throw at us, insures that the drug remains classified as an "orphan", thus commanding extravagantly bloated prices despite the fact that it is then sold to a mass market.

Hours of Exercise in the Alps, by John Tyndall

   The link here is to an internet site which allows you to download the entire book as a scanned pdf file (almost 25 megabytes), you can also read it online in various other formats. John Tyndall was Professor of Physics at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London from 1853 to 1887. During the 1860s he spent each summer in the Alps during that golden period of alpine exploration. He, along with his trusted guide, the great Bennen, was the first to climb The Weisshorn. He nearly made a first ascent of the Matterhorn, but in the end that honor was reserved for Edward Whymper in a climb that ended in tragedy.
    I suppose modern climbers will smile at his description of his climb up the back of the Eiger. With modern GoreTex mountaineering boots and crampons it must be a trivial matter, no more difficult than climbing say the stairs in the Eiffel Tower. But back in the 1860s, the guide had to carefully cut steps with his ice axe all the way up. In the modern world, when we think of the Eiger, we think of the North Face, that absurdly difficult and deadly perpendicular expanse of rock; all the rest is insignificant. (For our even indescribably more insignificant and trivial walks about the Alps two weeks ago, we got a new rucksack made by the "North Face" company. A very superior rucksack, but a further example of the trivialization of the extraordinary.)
    But the great thing about a book like this is the pure joy the author experiences when looking at the sky, or the snow, or the magnificence of the mountains. Tyndall devotes many pages to his observations on the properties and the motions of glaciers. He is always curious. Always experimenting. For example, during one ascent, he tells us that the light and colors of the sky are of the most extraordinarily beautiful quality, more so than he has ever seen before. And this leads him into a dissertation on the reason the sky is blue. It is especially most beautifully deep blue in the direction away from the sun. He tells us that this is due to the reflection, or deflection, of light by small particles in the air. (The language of the Victorian physicist is filled with flowery and complicated words to describe such things.) I had thought that the blueness of the sky was due to the absorption spectrum of nitrogen or oxygen, or something, giving a quantum mechanical effect. However, looking the thing up in the Wikipedia, I see that it is explained by the more classical Rayleigh effect. There is also the Tyndall effect, which is perhaps more relevant for explaining the different colors of sea water.
    The book ends with a description of his trip to Algeria in December, 1870, for the purpose of observing an eclipse of the sun. Of course these days you can easily find out what the sun is doing, for example at this site on the internet, which gives you various pictures of the state of the sun right now. You can have a look at the corona, the sun spots, the intensity of the radiation in different frequencies, in particular the x-ray emissions, and you can also see what the sun looks like some way around the back, and further around the front, as observed by the STEREO satellites which are orbiting the sun at the L4 and L5 Lagrange points with respect to the Sun-Earth system.
    But back in 1870, the only way to get a clear view of the corona was to get a hurried look through a telescope, and various optical instruments, during the two minutes or so of a total solar eclipse. Tyndall traveled together with a number of other English scientists on a ship down to Algeria. During the trip, the ship is assaulted by a massive winter storm in the Bay of Biscay, nearly bringing it to grief. This prompts Tyndall to make various scientific observations on the motion of ships in a storm. Arriving in Algeria, he selects a suitable site for his instruments, and with the assistance of various sailors or soldiers from the ship, he spends days practicing for his hectic observations during the two minutes of totality. But alas, the day of the eclipse turned out to be cloudy and rainy, so he was only able to observe the general darkening of the clouds beneath the eclipsed sun.
    This is similar to our experience with the total eclipse of the sun on August 11, 1999. Rather than spending a whole month to get to the thing and return, as Tyndall was required to do in 1870, the moon was making things more convenient for us, so that we only needed to drive a couple of hundred kilometers south of here in order to reach the path of totality. We decided that the weather might be generally better in France, and so we drove over to Metz, more particularly around the neighborhood of Thionville, which would be right in the center of the path of the shadow of the moon. This had the attraction of a pleasant overnight stay in the town of Trier, with all the interesting Roman ruins, and then a drive along the Mosel river. Near Thionville, we scouted about for a good hill and parked the car, climbing the hill and then enjoying a small picnic on a blanket spread on the grass. We noticed that most of the adjoining hilltops were occupied with similar groups waiting for the great event. Unfortunately it was a rather cloudy day, but with the hope of occasional gaps in the clouds. I had noticed some cooling towers of a power station near Thionville producing lots of water vapor, but we were situated somewhat upwind of that. Nevertheless, as with Tyndall's experience, I am afraid to say that the actual eclipse was only experienced beneath a continuous layer of clouds. But even so, I agree with Tyndall that even this was a wonderful experience of Nature. Unfortunately, all the other people on all the other hilltops of France also got into their cars at the same time as we did. Most of them were Dutch people, but the motorway was blocked for hours so that the drive back took considerably longer than planned. Afterwards I was told by some people who had simply driven down to Heidelberg that at the moment the eclipse reached them, the clouds parted and they had a magnificent and unobstructed view of the whole thing.

Anthem for Doomed Youth, by Poets of the First World War

   I seldom read poetry. Poems are usually fragments of feelings within some larger story which for us, as the readers of a poem, is largely hidden. And so I would like to know more about the story. How does it begin, how does it end? Yet with war poems, the story is clear. The poems all make sense within a great collective tragedy.
    The anthology of poems here was published a number of years ago by the Folio Society. I have occasionally read one or two of them when the mood struck me, but now I have simply read the whole lot in their order in the book. It is arranged more or less chronologically. At first we meet the young men, surprised to find themselves camping in tents, marching about under the shouts of some dominating Sargent Major, wondering what it will be like to join the real fight. Then we have their first impressions of things. And then many, many poems describing the horrible reality of it all. Finally, there are a few poems of the survivors, even written many years later, still trying to understand the horror.

If I should die in some old Flanders trench
Mid winter's slush or summer's vilest stench,...

So begins one of these many poems, this one by someone named A.V. Simpson. At the end of the book is a list of the various authors, together with the information about when they died. And so we see that A.V. Simpson lived on until 1992, when he died at the age of 95 years. But when he wrote these lines, he didn't know that.
    Imagine going on for year after year in the trenches, in the freezing cold of winter, or being drenched by cold rain. Explosions all the time. Sniper's bullets whistling through the air around you like knives. And out in the front are many dead bodies, or people who have been shot out in the open and are screaming for somebody to shoot them in order to put an end to the pain. All the bodies are gradually decomposing, producing, as he says, the vilest stench.
    This Folio volume also has many photographs of the war, including pictures of some of the poets. I often looked at the picture of Robert Graves, or of Sigfried Sassoon, both of whom survived the war. But particularly the picture of Wilfred Owen, who was killed on the 4th of November, 1918, aged 25, just days before the end of the war, has a disquieting, incredibly sad aspect to it.

Lush Life, by Richard Price

   There is an interesting portrait of the author, Richard Price, in the review of the book in the New York Times, which I have linked to here. When reading the book, I had imagined him to be younger, more awake. But the life he describes would certainly be extremely exhausting, draining, hardly lush, and so we understand how he has acquired such a face. The action takes place in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
    I have only the most vicarious knowledge of New York, but from what I read, I gather that the neighborhood used to be as dangerous as William Boyd's "Shaft" in London, yet now it is in the process of becoming "gentrified". That is to say, all those violent, drugged, gangs of criminal youths with no money and long police records are being replaced by the much worse criminals whose territory used to be confined to the immediate vicinity of Wall Street. But now, in the process of regurgitating all of the billions and trillions which they have stolen from the rest of us, some of it has been spewed beyond the immediate vicinity of their crimes, so that the properties of the Lower East Side are becoming too expensive for the traditional gangs of New York. This must be the lushness referred to in the title of the book.
    At first, I found it difficult to get into this book. The dialog was so filled with unfamiliar slang that much of it was incomprehensible. However, after 50 or so pages, the story settled down to being a fascinating murder mystery. A very absorbing read. It is the kind of book where you read on from page to page, as if in a gripping movie.
    I imagine that in earlier times, the odd random shooting on the streets would be dismissed by the police as being nothing more than the usual day to day routine of events in the Big City. But according to the story of this book, the killer is one of the left-over youths of darker skin color in the neighborhood, while the victim is a light-skinned, grown-up child who imagines that he is in some way "artistic", and thus special. Since the world of art can only accommodate a limited number of these children of the more privileged, they exist by working as waiters in trendy restaurants. For the members of the gentrification class, this murder of one of their own is a tragedy of theatrical proportions, and so the police must take it seriously.
    The main characters are the policeman, Matt, and the witness, Eric, who himself was both nearly a victim of the mugging, and also a victim of random police incompetence. Eric is the head waiter at one of those trendy restaurants, where the true victim was temporarily working. Gradually we learn that all of the characters in the book - apart from the degenerate, longer-term residents of the Lower East Side (those people "of color") - are overworked and underpaid. They dream of "success", without having any clear picture of what sort of success they seek. Is it artistic success, or sexual success, or drug-induced success? The book ends with the youthful, degenerate killer being consigned to years of a horrible existence within the vast American prison-industrial system. The other characters continue on with their meaningless lives, hoping, perhaps succeeding in escaping from the Lower East Side.
    We are left with the impression that the poor killer has a greater degree of artistic talent than anyone else in the book.

The Shipping News, by Annie Proulx

   Looking for something new to read at the bookshop in town, I got this one. The woman at the cash register exclaimed that it is a wonderful book; she had read it twice and had watched the movie as well! So it must be good. Then, riding back home on my bicycle, I seemed to remember a movie which was shown on television a while ago, where a crazy haunted house was in the middle of things, mounted on wind-swept rocks, tied down with steel cables which produced a disturbing humming or howling sound in the gale winds coming off the frozen ocean.
    And indeed, that was the movie corresponding to this book. But now, having read the book, I can say that this was another instance of the truism that the book is generally better than the movie.
    In fact the haunted family house doesn't really play all that much of a role in the book. It was the family house of the Quoyle family in earlier times in the Canadian province of Newfoundland. We learn that they were rather degenerate people. So the more recent generations of the family escaped from the coldness of northern Canada to the United States, where things were somewhat warmer - climate-wise - but even more desolate from the emotional point of view. Thus the protagonist, referred to throughout the book as simply Quoyle, retreats back to cold Newfoundland with his aunt and two young daughters.
    Unlike the movie, both Quoyle and his aunt establish themselves as respected and productive members of society in Newfoundland, such as it is. Rather than living in the silly haunted house strung onto the rocks, perched above the cold Atlantic, they move sensibly into town. And so the book becomes a description in various episodes of life as it is experienced in Newfoundland.
    I am writing this at the beginning of December, and the weather here in Europe is freezing! There hasn't been such a cold spell as this, so early in the winter, for many years. Everything is covered in ice and snow. In order to escape the dark, cold, gray winter of Europe and North America, a conference has been organized in the tropical resort of Cancun in Mexico, where right now, thousands of rich people have traveled in order to enjoy the warmth, sunbathing on the tropical beaches. And what is the subject of their luxurious conference - which is being paid for by the rest of us through our ever-increasing taxes? The subject of their conference is the idea that the world is now too hot, and so all of humanity should try and get together and do something - anything - in the hope that by some means the world will become even colder than it is now! The absurdity of this would be not so obvious if they had chosen to take their all-expenses-paid holidays not in tropical Cancun, but rather in ice-bound Newfoundland.

Homer and Langley, by E.L. Doctorow

   According to the review in the Guardian which I have linked to here, the story of this book is based on a true story. The Collyer brothers of New York became recluses, living alone in their Manhattan mansion, gradually letting it deteriorate into a state of filthy dereliction, gradually becoming filled with mountains of old newspapers, so that at the end it was only possible for them to reach the small remaining spaces through tunnels in the accumulated rubbish. Finally they died in 1947, when they were found buried beneath the debris.
    In Doctorow's story, the brothers live somewhat longer - into the 1980s, when they themselves would have been in their eighties, having been born around the turn of the century. Homer is the narrator. He goes blind before the first world war. His passion is music, the piano. The parents are well-to-do members of the New York high society, as it was in those days, one hundred years ago. The father is a medical doctor, specializing in woman's medicine. They live in a large, four story mansion on Fifth Avenue, facing Central Park. One wonders how the family had so much money in order to support such a lifestyle.
    It is undoubtedly true that in earlier times, fashionable medical doctors were even more rapacious than is the case with modern medical doctors in the United States today. Nevertheless, I find it difficult to imagine that such practitioners would have been able to amass a sufficient wealth from their poor patients in order to live in such style. It is said in the book that the ancestors of the Collyer family immigrated from Europe at the beginning of the 19th century to the United States. Perhaps they were members of that New York banking class who were even more rapacious than those doctors of fashion. Or perhaps - more happily - they had honorably and successfully established some industry in the dynamically growing world of 19th century America.
    Thus the blind Homer stayed at home, while his brother Langley enlisted in the army to go "over there" in the First World War. He returned with a bad case of mustard-gas poisoning, and a cynical view of the world. The parents died of the Spanish flu, leaving the two brothers in charge of the mansion, with a couple of old family servants to look after things. (As explained here, the excessive use of the drug aspirin may have caused the extremely high mortality experienced during the influenza outbreak of 1918.)
    At first they live it up, but soon realize that the money is coming to an end. Homer has an affair with a younger servant who comes into the house, but that ends abruptly. Langley starts reading all the newspapers published in New York, accumulating them every day, with the idea of showing that all the news - everything in life - can be boiled down to some basic formula, or set of essential details. Perhaps in connection with this idea, he accumulates junk. Thus does the house gradually become filled with garbage. The old servants either die, or leave, and the brothers become recluses, closing themselves in, boarding up the windows, and what have you.
    A depressing story which, after finishing the book, seemed to me to be a story of little value and less meaning. Perhaps Doctorow was trying to give us some sort of a feeling of nostalgia for the New York of bygone days. Back in the 1920s, and 30s and 40s. When the Empire State Building was built, and it was hit by an airplane, but did not fall down! Were those the good-old days? Maybe. For my part, I find it difficult to understand why this book was short-listed for the Mann-Booker prize.