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Jonathan Franzen:
Michael Cunningham:
     By Nightfall
     The Hours
Barbara Kingsolver:
     Prodigal Summer
Ian McEwan:
     On Chesil Beach
Erich Maria Remarque:
     All Quiet on the Western Front
Aldous Huxley:
     Antic Hay
Anton Chekhov:
     The Collected Short Stories
Laurie Lee:
     As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning
Alan Moorehead:
     Cooper's Creek
Zora Neale Hurston:
     Their Eyes Were Watching God
Joseph O'Connor:
     Ghost Light
Primo Levi:
     The Periodic Table
Eric Newby:
     A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush
Anton Chekhov:
     The Collected Short Stories: Volumes 2 - 4
Henry Fielding:
     Tom Jones
Daphne Du Maurier:
     Jamaica Inn
Haruki Murakami:
     Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi:
     The Monster of Florence
Charles Dickens:
     A Tale of Two Cities
Richard T. Kelly:
     The Possessions of Doctor Forrest
Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child:
     Gideon's Sword
Geraldine Brooks:
     Caleb's Crossing
Dave Eggers (Valentino Achak Deng):
     What is the What
A. S. Byatt:
     The Game
Julian Barnes:
     Before She Met Me

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

     A long story, but an enjoyable read over the Christmas vacation, involving an American family with all their problems with one another and with the problems of the U.S.A. in its aggressive dealings with the rest of the world. The main characters are Patty, her husband Walter, and their son Joey. The daughter Jessica only plays a minor supporting role, as do the families of Patty and of Walter. But still, we learn many unpleasant facts about all of them as well. And of course there is also Connie, Joey's girlfriend, who becomes his loving and devoted wife.
    Franzen makes a great effort to paint rounded, many-sided pictures of the personalities of his three main characters. Even more so than in his earlier Corrections, which I also enjoyed. He has Patty reading Tolstoy's War and Peace in occasional scenes throughout the book, so I suppose we are being encouraged to compare this book to that classic. If reading Tolstoy, at over a thousand pages, is equated with a marathon run - or even an ultra-marathon - then the present book, at only about half the length, is a half-marathon. But still, Franzen's writing is light and fun to read, not the heavy Tolstoy style (at least in its translations into English), and unlike War and Peace, it is not necessary to make diagrams in order to keep track of all the characters. In this book, we get to know more about the messy details of this family than we really wanted to know, and in the process, the relationships of the characters to one another are all too clear. But in the end, Franzen presents us with a happy ending. Everybody becomes lovable and devoted to upstanding, politically correct ways of life.
    So there you are! The moral of the story is that, after everything is said and done, the basic values of the U.S.A. are wonderful after all.
    Whereas in The Corrections, published in 2001, Franzen's characters were concerned with making money in the dot-com stock market boom, and then losing it in the subsequent bust, in the present book, which was just recently published in 2010, they are concerned with George W. Bush's wars, and with eco-politics. (And of course "eco" here is short for "ecological", not "economical".)
    As far as the Bush wars are concerned, there are a number of possible theories about the reasons why they were started. For example, amongst many further possibilities which I will not bother to list here, we have:
  1. It was a conspiracy of the Texas oil oligarchy, their idea being to corner the market, or...
  2. A conspiracy of the military-industrial complex, allowing them to sell lots of military paraphernalia to the Pentagon, or...
  3. A result of George W. Bush's inferiority complex in relationship to his father, and his guilt about various supposed alcoholic problems, or...
  4. A Zionist plot.
I was extremely surprised to find that Jonathan Franzen has chosen possibility number 4 for use in this novel. And I was even more surprised to see that in the review of the book in the New York Times, which I have linked to above, he was not accused of being an anti-Semite.
    As far as eco-politics is concerned, they are represented by Walter, Patty's husband. Franzen makes much fun of him, so it is unclear to me what he is trying to tell us on this score. At the end of the book, Walter retreats to his lake in Minnesota, or Wisconsin, or something, and involves himself in hopeless fights with the neighbor's cats, which are tormenting the poor little songbirds on his property. Yes, I agree that cats are horrible things. What a relief it is when Walter traps that evil little devil, Bobby, and then drives it far away to an animal shelter in some distant town. And yet, being a weak eco-wimp, he immediately loses himself in feelings of guilt for Bobby.
    Besides the standard guilt feelings people are now supposed to have about being part of the cycles of nature, exhaling that substance which provides the plant kingdom with sustenance, Walter also becomes hysterical about the Population Bomb. He is a highly paid member of the eco-lobby in Washington, living in a lush mansion, buoyed up by his slice of the billions which are spent on bribery by all of the various industries living from the eco- gravy train. And so his idea is to organize a competition of Country and Western singers, to see who can sing the best song to the theme of "babies are horrible", or something.
    What a ridiculous idea!

    So what is the reason the populations of many European countries are now on the decline? It is certainly not the result of the efforts of Country and Western bands. Nor is it a result of the misguided preachings of that earlier advocate of control and denial, Paul Ehrlich, with his 1968 book The Population Bomb. In reality it is the happy result of the liberation of women into having jobs rather than babies. And this is demonstrated over and over again in Franzen's book.
    The only really fertile woman in the book is that simple-minded Russian Jewess, Galina, who marries Patty's brother. Richard, the virile Country and Western singer who is Patty's secret lover, and who maintains that his role in life seems to be to insert his member into as many females as possible, remains totally barren. While Patty and Walter have managed to procreate two children, this has been a mixed blessing, and thus their thoughts and actions - perhaps through frustration - continue to center upon the act of procreation, but with neither hope nor wish for success. The worst fate is reserved for poor Joey and Connie who exhaust themselves in a never-ending, yet eternally fruitless performance of the sexual act in all its possible variations, lovingly described by Franzen on page after page throughout the book.

By Nightfall, by Michael Cunningham

     This was the perfect antidote to Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, which I just finished a couple of days ago. This is not the "Great American Novel", filled with political correctness in the hope that it will sell millions of copies. Instead it is a quiet, simple story, telling us a great deal.
    Michael Cunningham's style is more elegant than the jokey prose of Franzen. He takes us deeper into the minds of his characters and into the world in which they live. The protagonist is Peter. He has an art gallery in New York. Not a famous gallery, but it is respected by those in the know. His wife Rebecca has an art magazine which is floundering. They live in a fashionable loft in lower Manhattan. But what is modern art?
    At the beginning we accompany Peter and another gallerist, an older woman who is developing breast cancer, into New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in order to see Damien Hirst's shark preserved in formaldehyde. In fact, investigating these things in the Internet, I find that Hirst is Britain's richest artist, with an estimated wealth of £215 million. But look at the works of "art" he has created. Next to the dead shark, he also has pieces of dead cows and bulls also preserved in formaldehyde tanks. I remember laughing about a picture in the paper of his more recent work, For the Love of God, which is a human skull, covered in platinum, which is then covered completely with diamonds. The price is said to be £50 million.
    And yet before reaching the shark, Peter pauses to look at Rodin's The Bronze Age. Is Damien Hirst less of an artist than was Rodin? What is art? What is it that fascinates, even in repelling? And who are the people who are prepared to spend millions on a dead animal in a tank of formaldehyde?
    We get to meet Peter's best client, an old woman who receives millions from the factories established by her ancestors, producing washing machines or something. She has a second-rate husband, similarly old, and so her life has become devoted to acquiring the most exquisite works of art in order to make her house into a complete work of art. Breathtaking, perfect. The visitor is greeted in the entrance hall by an antique Chinese chest of drawers which Peter thinks must have cost upwards of a quarter of a million dollars. The walls are covered with further art of similar monetary value. Then entering the living room, we are ushered into a collection of far more valuable works, creating an harmonious whole. Peter is visiting in order to try to sell her a bronze vase by the up-and-coming young artist Rupert Groff. It is to be placed in her perfect garden. But Groff has covered the vase with obscenities, in particular showing how obscene the people who buy all this modern stuff for huge amounts of money must be. Yet the old woman is delighted with these obscenities. What a sad, meaningless world she lives in!
    Into Peter's life comes Rebecca's young brother Mizzy. He had been the adorable little boy, but he has now grown into being a troubled 20 something, beautiful, as far as male beauty is concerned (as I understand it, Michael Cunningham is himself homosexual), yet dissipated. He has spent the past few months in a Japanese Zen garden, contemplating stones. Then a few semesters at Yale, perhaps satisfying family wishes. Always accompanied by cocaine, or whatever. Now he has arrived at Peter and Rebecca's Manhattan loft, thinking he would like to do something in art.
    Is Mizzy "The Vanquished" - Rodin's beautiful male nude? Is he a different, perhaps better version of the young Rebecca? Does he love Peter, and does Peter in return discover gay tendencies he had never before known? Peter imagines jumping out of this meaningless world of modern art, running off with Mizzy to a Greek island, turning his life into a wonderful tragedy. Just a dream.

The Hours, by Michael Cunningham

     Having enjoyed the last book so much, I decided to read Cunningham's The Hours, which was made into a movie starring Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep. If the idea of casting Meryl Streep as Clarissa, the aging New York hippie who has become a straight-laced lesbian was questionable, then the casting of Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf was absurd. The artificial nose which she had stuck on her face for the movie did not change her appearance into an approximation of Virginia Woolf.
    Have a look at the iconic photo of the young Virginia Woolf, for example here. She is a fragile, wispy thing, with tender, caring eyes. She looks tired. Contrast that with the dominating, aggressive expression of Nicole Kidman, playing the role of the sensual lesbian, full of feline health and energy, desperately trying to bring something into the role to suggest some sort of mild insanity. How ridiculous! But we have so often seen that those Hollywood people turn a good story into the most stupid rubbish imaginable, so I thought that perhaps that might also be the case with this book.
    Well, it certainly was an improvement on the movie. If it hadn't been based on the novel Mrs. Dalloway, then I might have enjoyed the story. But I had found both Virginia Woolf's novel, and also the movie of the novel starring Vanessa Redgrave, to be so wonderful that a story like this, reducing everything to simple homosexuality, struck me as nothing but bad taste. On the other hand, making an effort to pretend that Virginia Woolf was not a part of the story; say, pretending that Michael Cunningham's book was based on the life of the lesbian author, Ms. ABC, and her famous novel XYZ, which - in contrast to the great novel Mrs. Dalloway - dealt with lesbianism and sickness in the England of the 1920s, and then about the homosexuality of both sexes, and AIDS, in modern New York, it did turn out to be worth reading.

Prodigal Summer, by Barbra Kingsolver

     An enjoyable book about the birds and the bees. It basically consists of three stories, all of which take place during a fertile summer in the Appalachians, amongst all those hill-billies:
    As I say, it was a nice story, an enjoyable read, so I don't want to make too much fun of the book. Nevertheless, when reading it, I did feel like placing a question mark here and there.
    The basic idea of the book is that life is ruled by the urge to reproduce, particularly in such a fertile environment as the Appalachians. But it is interesting to remember that this whole cycle of life - birth, reproduction, death - has only existed on the Earth for the last six or seven hundred million years. Before that, there were three billion years of single-celled life, during which none of these events really played such an important role. A single cell simply splits itself into two, and so lives on in a dual personality, in turn splitting again and again throughout eternal time. Where is birth, reproduction, or death for such creatures? Indeed, the vast majority of life on the Earth at the present time also lives on in this timeless manner. It is only the multi-celled forms of life which began during the Cambrian phase of geological time, using sexual reproduction, which experience birth and death. The birds, bees, trees, moths, and especially the coyotes, all of which play a major role in this book, are subject to sexual reproduction, and thus they experience the dramas of a Prodigal Summer. (Not to mention the people, as well.)
    The MESSAGE of the book was the following. Within the drama of sexual reproduction, predators play a much more important role than do their prey. Thus, if the farmer sprays his fields with a poison, killing off everything, then both the predators and the prey are dead. But gradually the few survivors live on to reproduce themselves. As far as the prey are concerned, the world is then a Garden of Eden, filled with delicious farm produce. But for the predators, at least at the beginning, there are almost no prey. Thus they have nothing to live on. As a consequence, the result of spraying is that in a short time, the fields are over-run with even more caterpillars, and what have you, than there were before, ruining all that nice farm produce. Therefore spraying things with poison is counterproductive.
    Yes, an nice theory. All these farmers should just stop spraying the world with their poisons. The result would be a beautiful world with lots of good, healthy things to eat, and everybody would live happily ever after. Such is the moral of the story of this book.
    Indeed, I can tell you, dear reader, that this is the way we live. Nothing but organic food passes my lips! What little meat we eat comes from farms which treat the animals in sensible ways. No poisons pollute our garden. The neighbor (not our farming neighbor) once had somebody come to spray his apple trees, but I protested loudly when I saw that the sprayer started directing his poisons in the direction of our property line. We have even affixed a sticker to the back window of our car which depicts a smiling Sun, and the slogan "atomic power, no thank you!", in the style of the 1980s. If people would only live sensibly, then the world would become a better place!
    But unfortunately, reality is different from this. And brutal reality has been demonstrated right here, next to our garden, during the less than prodigal summer of 2010. Adjoining us is a field which had lain fallow for the last 20 years or so, buoyed up I suppose by all those European subventions. It was a paradise for the birds and the bees, prevented from reverting to its natural state as a forest by the farmer, who occasionally drove over things with a very impressive mowing device attached to his tractor.
    Suddenly in the spring of 2010 we remarked on the fact that all of those plants in the field were looking strangely brown. In fact even some of the plants along the border of our garden were also looking strangely brown. It was a massive case of Death, apparently initiated by the farmer surreptitiously, during some dark night. The field was then planted, using large machines, and soon we saw vigorous strains of corn (maize) growing like crazy. Before the summer was finished, the corn was huge, standing two and a half meters high, obstructing our view down beyond the garden. During this time, we tried planting some corn of our own - organically - in the garden, but it failed miserably! Therefore I decided to steal one or two ears of the farmers corn and boil them in the kitchen, just to see what they were like as corn-on-the-cob. But it was horrible! I just had to spit it out. Totally inedible.
    At the end of the summer, a couple of huge machines came through, and within hours they had reduced the whole field of a few hectares to bare mud, and they filled up many truck-loads of hacked up corn - together with all its stalks and everything - to take away to the local "bio-fuel" farm. There, this corn will be reduced to methane and ethanol, or whatever, to be burned as an offering to our present-day, hysterical war on the air. But I am sorry to say that the air is fighting back nicely against humanity, producing unprecedented amounts of snow, and the result of the battle is that the earth in our neighboring field, and the water which is contained in the ground, has become poisoned. But at least the oil companies, which according to European law must now add 10% ethanol to petrol and diesel, are making a nice profit out of this whole business, and of course the atomic energy industry, which started the whole "global warming" war against the air for its own profit, has done well. Finally there are the farmers who now find themselves in the happy position of being able to sell highly poisoned crops at good prices in the name of bio-ecology, or whatever it is supposed to be called.
    But I am left with the question, why did that sprayed corn on the farmer's field grow so wonderfully when compared with our organically grown corn, which hardly grew at all? This seems to be a total contradiction of Barbara Kingsolver's philosophy.
    It seems to me that the solution to this riddle is that whereas our neighbor, the farmer, initially reduced his field to a lifeless wasteland, devoid of both predator and prey, he hardly killed anything in our adjoining garden. Thus, during the initial surge of insects, eating away at his corn, it was not the case that there were no predators around to keep them in check. In fact, our predators were there, ready to take advantage of the situation, jumping over our fence into the corn field, and so ensuring that the farmer had a larger than expected crop to burn, and thus - at least according to the thinking of the Powers That Be - contributing to our War Against the Air. Since the field was fallow anyway, one cannot say that his crop was contributing to the ever-increasing cost of food and the consequent starvation of people in third world countries.

On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan

     A short book, little more than a long short story with a very sad ending. The little poem of Philip Larkin, "Annus Mirabilis", the first half of which is quoted in the Guardian review which I have linked to here, sums it up beautifully. While the second half of Larkin's poem gives a happy ending to everything, the story on Chesil Beach ends unhappily. Thankfully though, Ian McEwan has left out the esoteric nonsense which he saw fit to put into The Child in Time. I was at first reluctant to read this book, which we have taken as the next one for our reading group. Nevertheless, it did turn out to be a nice read.
    The story is about a young man and woman in 1962 who have just gotten married. Both of them come from Oxford, or at least the general surroundings of Oxford. The woman is a musician, a violinist, with great musical ambitions. Her mother is a straight-laced Oxford professor. Her father is a rich, over-ambitious industrialist. They live in a magnificent villa, somewhere about Oxford. The man comes from a humble situation on the land beyond Oxford. His father is a teacher in a primary school. His mother had a bad accident when he was small, receiving a heavy blow to the head which left her in a slightly imbecilic state. Still, he has passed through university (in London, not Oxford) studying history, and he is thinking of continuing on into a Ph.D. He imagines that he might publish a series of books - for example as Penguin books - on the various people in Middle Age England who became leaders of bizarre sects, competing with the equally bizarre Established Church.
    But this is all mere background to the story. The idea is that in the England of 1962, particularly for a fellow in the situation of the hero of the book, coming from humble origins, courting the beautiful daughter with classical musical ambitions of established people living in a villa in Oxford, everything must be prim and proper. In particular, true intimacy before marriage was a strict taboo.
    Thus, whereas the man experienced urgent physical drives which he longed to still on the marriage night, the woman had a secret horror of precisely these very natural biological functions. Yet neither had been able to speak openly with the other about this true situation. On the other hand, they both loved one another to a depth which truly transcended these awkward physical problems.
    So the marriage night in the honeymoon suite of a hotel on the south coast of England - just behind Chesil Beach, which you can investigate via Google Earth - was a complete catastrophe. The woman fled in the night back to her parents in Oxford, and they, together with the man's father, undid the whole marriage business, divorcing without fuss on the basis of the non-consummation of the marriage. We are then told of the aftermath. The woman, who feels guilt about the whole thing, becomes a famous musician. Not lonely with all the concerts of her famous string quartet, but always thinking with regret about the memory of her absurd little marriage and how she loved, even still loves, the man. On the other hand, the man loses himself in the swinging London of the 1960s, having many easy, meaningless affairs. Working casually in bars or record shops. A marriage in Paris lasts for two or three years. Later, in the 1990s, he realizes how he has wasted his life, achieving nothing. And he often thinks of his first love.

    What a contrast all of this is to the usual experience today! As in earlier times in Europe, and as it is indeed the case amongst primitive tribes-people, a marriage must develop naturally out of an intimate relationship in which the couple gradually gets to know one another. The marriage ceremony then becomes nothing more than an afterthought.
    The unnatural idea that the couple should only be allowed to be together after the marriage is surely something which became prevalent as marriage became a business, involving the exchange of material value between different families. How unpleasant is the idea of marriage as a cold, sober business deal. Horrible! This is the tradition in India, or in many Arabian countries. And I suppose it was imposed in Europe by the Catholic Church, that refuge of men who for one reason or another have chosen not to have normal relationships with women.

    Having written all that, I must add that the relationship between the man and the woman in the book seems to me to be slightly implausible. It is surely the case that being a musician involves being aware of one's body, and being capable of expressing one's emotions. A cold, frigid person would be more likely to be found in the situation of the mother - a thin, intellectual professor of philosophy at Oxford. Therefore I think the story would have been more believable if it were the man, the history major, who had failed on the wedding night.
    This reminds me of a very beautiful film which was shown on TV years ago about a newly-wed Japanese couple who took their honeymoon in a hotel on a beach in New Zealand. The bride was an experienced woman, whose social background was perhaps somewhat beneath that of the groom, whose family came across as straight-laced and arrogant. Upon arrival at the hotel, surrounded by all the natural beauty of New Zealand, the man was unable to perform as he had expected. Therefore, following some imagined, absurd Japanese tradition, he chose suicide, throwing himself into the wild pacific surf in the middle of the night, disappearing without trace. The poor bride returned to the bitter hatred of her parents-in-law, and her monotone secretarial job. In later years she returned to the New Zealand beach, losing her mind in regret and anguish.

All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque

     Although this is such a well-known book, I had never read it before, nor indeed had I thought about it very much at all. The author's name could have been English, or French. I vaguely knew that it was about the First World War, and the Western Front was in France, as opposed to the Eastern Front, which was of no great concern to the English, who seem to have been the most active nation when it comes to converting experiences of war into literature. So it was only a matter of vague recollection when I realized that Erich Maria Remarque was German. The Folio Society was offering the book this year, so I decided to order it.
    After getting through a few pages, I quickly began to get the feeling that this translation of the original German into English by Brian Murdoch didn't ring true at all. The narrator in the novel is a young fellow, named Paul Bäumer, just out of school, or perhaps not quite finished with school. The school teacher had gotten him and a few of his classmates to enroll in the army. So they were just young 18 year old boys, sent together as simple soldiers to be killed quickly on the Western Front. In Brian Murdoch's translation, near the beginning of the book, one somewhat older soldier - who is also just a simple private - tells the others that he thinks the present bombardment is the beginning of a "show".
    Now the idea of calling a horrible close battle, with people being bayoneted, shot with bullets in dreadful private parts, slammed in the face with rifle butts, horses screaming with their disemboweled intestines being trampled on the ground - calling all that a "show" is something that can only be comprehended by the English mind. Indeed, it reflects the arrogant talk of the officers in an army who spend their time pushing papers, safely removed from the true horror.
    Therefore, looking about the house, I saw that our children had read the book years ago for school, of course in the original German, and so I continued on, reading it in its original form. The first thing that strikes you is that the title in German, namely "Im Westen nichts Neues" is totally different from the English title. The literal translation would be "Nothing new in the West". That could be read as "It's still as horrible as ever in the west", something that certainly doesn't come across in the English translation of the title. In fact though, the title comes from the second to last paragraph in the book, where it is simply said that Paul, the narrator, joins his other schoolmates in deathly oblivion on a day in autumn, 1918, when things are dying down anyway. In fact it was such a quiet day on the front that the dispatch back to headquarters simply said that there was nothing new on that day in the west.
    Of course the author did survive the war, having been wounded after only a month on the front. The book contains a long description of the conditions in a hospital for the wounded, attended by nuns. The people languished away, gradually becoming more and more sick and finally being taken out of the room and into the "departure lounge" for those in the last day or two before death. Remarque obviously wrote from personal experience here. What a contrast it must have been in comparison with my recent medical experiences. These days everything is meticulously clean. The doctors are absolutely top rate, and the precise, elaborate, highly refined optical machinery in the operating theater (at least for eye operations) is fascinating to see. After a day or two, the patient calmly returns back to normal life away from the hospital. The possibility of infection is banished with medicine taken during the days following the operation.

    The edition of the book which I read - perhaps designed for the use of German school children - concluded with nearly 100 pages of quotations from newspapers, and whatever, describing how the book was received in Germany. At first there are glowing reviews, saying that at last, here is a book describing the war as it really was. Gradually, after it became a best-seller, more and more of these newspaper reviewers begin to criticize things, questioning the qualifications of the author to write about the war. Was he really a soldier? Wasn't the book an insult to the honorable German soldiers who fought in a more "dignified" way (in comparison with Remarque's earthy scenes)? The book was then burned by the Nazis, and Remarque became a hunted man who escaped to the safety of the United States. Then after the Second World War, the book has become a classic, which has become a standard book to be read at school for a more peaceful and responsible German generation.
    The strangest and most interesting of these criticisms of the book was written by the German author Kurt Tucholsky, writing under the pseudonym "Kaspar Hauser" in the Berlin newspaper "Die Weltbühne" on the 11th of June, 1929. Tucholsky himself was of Jewish ancestry, yet his review of the book was the most extreme anti-semitic diatribe one could possibly imagine. He accused Remarque of being a dirty Jew (in fact, Remarque was not Jewish) who had never been near the Front, and whose sole purpose was to undermine the honorable, Christian Germans who had fought so bravely. But then, later on, all of Tucholsky's various writings on other subjects - which today are considered to be in the mainstream of literature, as you can see by reading the Wikipedia entry on his life which I have linked to above - were burned by the Nazis, and he also became a hunted man, seeking refuge in Sweden where he committed suicide in 1935.
    But Erich Maria Remarque also survived the 1940s, in exile in the U.S.A., and returned to Switzerland in 1948, where he lived on until 1970. While the Nazis were unable to get him, they did get his sister who had not escaped from Germany before the war. In 1943 she was accused of having said to somebody or other that the war was lost for Germany. This was enough to bring down the full wrath of Nazi evil upon her; the judge saying that while they were not able to execute her brother, at least they would be able to execute her. And so she was guillotined in a dark Nazi dungeon on December 16, 1943. The charge against her was "undermining morale", which in the English language seems to be a mild sort of crime, but in the German language the ugly linguistic construction "Wehrkraftzersetzung" was the charge.
    It is often said that Germans are a nervous people, correct, inflexible, standing on principle. In some situations this is undoubtedly a good thing. German cars are thought to be of high quality. The "Green" political movement began in Germany. I have often thought that this is a result of the German language. According to Plato, the things of the world are the imperfect examples of the pure "forms" in the world of imagination. For example, when a teacher of geometry draws a circle on a black-board, it is not really a perfect circle, rather it is an approximation of the pure form of a circle. Thus a word, such as "circle", represents the ideal form of something in the world of chaotic day to day experience.
    So given a word, the mind automatically associates this word with something real. The problem is that whereas in other languages it is certainly possible to form ugly, nonsensical sentences from collections of words, in the German language it is often the case that such monstrosities are considered to be a single word, and therefore they are the forms of real things. Thus the beheading of Remarque's sister was a result of the "thing" or "form" which would perhaps be described as the rotting, or corruption, or decay of the forces which defend, or support society.
    These days, one constantly hears nervous German voices on the radio or on TV (and one reads it in the newspapers) repeating endlessly the word "Klimaschutz". That is to say "climate protection". I am sure that most people today would say that the word "Klimaschutz" is less of an abomination than is "Wehrkraftzersetzung". Nonetheless, both monstrosities are not the forms of anything real. How do you "protect" the temperature? or the wind? What are we supposed to be protecting it from? For example, would it be the case that I would be "protecting the wind" if I followed the advice of the people who came to repair something on our roof a year or two ago, and who then suggested that we do a major renovation, putting in lots of additional insulation in the name of "Klimaschutz"? The renovation would cost 35 thousand euros, and it was suggested that this sensible investment would save us, in the best case, 300 or so euros per year in heating costs. It may be that in the German mind, the wind, or the rain, or whatever, might be "protected" if I gave lots of money to somebody for something which would be nearly useless. But I, for one, am determined to preserve my sanity in this situation!

Antic Hay, by Aldous Huxley

     A tedious book describing the lives of a number of ridiculous characters in the London of the 1920s. Cynicism, nihilism, dadaism (or was that more of a Swiss thing in those days?), I suppose it was considered to be a sort of pointed humor, describing the sickness at the core of the British Empire which still spanned the globe back then.
    I was amused to read that the book was even banned in Australia! This was presumably owing to the fact that two of the characters in the book were a married couple, and it was stated in the most guarded of ways that the wife had actually had intercourse with another of the characters, not her husband. I remember that in Australia 50 years ago the authorities were very eager to protect the morals of society, and so not only were books banned, but many films were severely censored. Well, yes. Maybe it wasn't such a bad idea to protect us from all of this European cynicism.
    But while the characters in the book are hopelessly degenerate, still they hardly manage to accomplish anything definite. While there is much careful and indirect talk about living the free and modern life, in fact only the one character was able to actually exceed the bounds of propriety as it was understood in those days. Apart from that, the various characters simply talk and talk, often in French, demonstrating Huxley's mastery of that language, with many allusions to classical themes, demonstrating Huxley's classical erudition.
    For me, this was not a wonderful book. But a more mature Aldous Huxley later in his life did write some good things. His After Many a Summer is still an enjoyable read.

The Collected Short Stories, by Anton Chekhov

     In order to be able to buy books from the Folio Society, you have to become a "member", which entails ordering at least four of their books. Having done that, you are then a member for that year. Then the next year, if you fail to order four further books, your membership lapses, which is something the Folio Society seeks to avoid. Thus as the year of membership draws to a close, one receives increasingly generous offers of special books at reduced prices if only one will agree to order a further four books. And so I have discovered that it is a good idea to wait patiently for them to offer multi-volume sets of books at drastically reduced prices, and then to take them up on the offer - at least when the books seem to be concerned with things which might be interesting.
    Thus this set of four volumes of the collected short stories of Chekhov arrived through the post. I have now made it through to the end of volume one. But already I'm exhausted! There is nothing light-hearted here. It's all heavy Russian pathos. Peasants toiling endlessly in the exhausting heat of a Russian summer. The wide, featureless landscape reflecting the emptiness of people's lives. Meaningless deaths. Or people lost in a blizzard, seeking refuge in a lonely house, only to find that the inhabitants are thieves, or even murderers. This depressing atmosphere shows how ripe Russia was for its revolution. Yet now, a hundred years later, after the horrors of Stalin, Russia seems to be returning to the situation described by Chekhov. A society controlled by a few unimaginably rich oligarchs ruling over a vast sea of poor peasants.
    Chekhov himself studied medicine, and therefore a number of his stories are concerned with medical people. These must be some of the characters he observed in his life in medicine. One longish story in this first volume was titled "A Dreary Story". It concerns a professor of medicine at some university - not in one of the great metropolises: Moscow or St. Petersburg. Despite this, the professor is famous. Yet he is an old man. Sixty two years old. He is sick, and he dies at the end of the story.
    --- But here I must interrupt things to say that I am now sixty three, and it doesn't seem to me to be such a great age. If one stays active, running, bicycling and so forth, then sixty two, or three, is at most late middle-age. ---
    Anyway, the professor reflects on university life. Were the old days better? Are the students really worse than they used to be? And what are the answers to such questions here? Well, I now have an almost limitless supply (three volumes worth) of Chekhov short stories to divert the mind from such thoughts.

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, by Laurie Lee

     A very beautifully written, lyrical book. Some years ago we read Cider with Rosie, which Laurie Lee wrote to describe his memories of rural English life back in the 1920s and 30s when he was growing up.
    His family was poor, and so he had to walk away from home at an age when today's young people are still languishing in school, out into the wide world to make something of himself. He first walked to London, by way of a detour along the south coast of England, often sleeping rough, and supporting himself by playing his violin on the street corners of the villages he passed through. In London he found work as a laborer on a building site, but gradually he realized that there was no future in that. So the idea formed in his mind to travel to Spain and walk through that country. The only reason he had thought of Spain was because someone had taught him how to ask for a drink in Spanish. Apart from that, his English school education had taught him which goods happened to have been produced in Queensland at that time, at the opposite end of the Earth, but virtually nothing at all about Spain.
    So he arrived almost penniless, having spent everything on the ships passage, with a rucksack containing the meager basics and his violin. The first night he climbed up the hills above the town, spread his blanket on the ground and went to sleep, only to be woken by wild dogs which tried to bite him and which he had to fend off for the remainder of the night. But he survived that. Soon he met up with a small group of young German street musicians who were traveling endlessly about in Spain. Apparently they had escaped from the horrors of the Nazis. But then he was again on his own. This was the summer of 1935. Global warming enthusiasts might enjoy his descriptions of the heat of a Spanish summer in the 1930s. He describes the sun as like a lion whose claws of heat rip the heart out of the traveler. In fact after one particularly hot stage, he collapsed in the next village and only regained consciousness the next day.
    He describes the poverty of the people, and indeed the poverty of his own condition. Yet he was able to support himself with his violin, playing on the street to these poor people. He must have been able to play with much feeling and sincerity. He writes that if he played English songs, then it meant nothing to the people there and they walked away. Also if he played something fast, then they walked on quickly in time with the music. What they liked were the Spanish songs and melodies of that time, and also Schubert, for some reason.
    Indeed, for me, of all the national anthems, the Spanish one is by far and away the most wonderful. The greatest thing about the recent World Cup football tournament in South Africa was the fact that Spain went right through to win the final match, and so before each of their games we were treated to a moving rendition of the Spanish anthem. It is also a great moment when Fernando Alonso happens to win a formula one race for Ferrari (something which happens all too seldom), since then we get treated to the Spanish anthem, followed by the Italian anthem, which, while not being quite so good, still isn't bad in itself. But on this note, I must say that it was a great shame that some time ago, the people of Australia chose by means of a public vote to adopt a musical abomination for an anthem. Before that, we had "God Save the Queen", which, if anything, at least it can be said to be spirited. Yet as a show of independence from the old Mother Country, it was decided to ditch God Save the Queen, and instead choose either that wonderful, traditional melody of Australia, namely "Waltzing Matilda", or else the nondescript, artificial construction "Advance Australia Fair". And so, in contrast to Laurie Lee's audience of simple people on the streets of Spain, it was found that the majority of people in Australia have no feeling for music.
    He stayed for a week in Toledo, by chance meeting the poet Roy Campbell, and he stayed the week with the Campbell family. There is a nice snapshot of the young author, together with the poet. Wine flowed freely. We are told that Campbell's personal daily ration was 4 1/2 bottles! From the description in the book, we gain the impression that Campbell was an old, time-worn wreck, at least two generations beyond the young author, feting the intrepid and impoverished young countryman who could live from his music on the streets of Spain. But in the photo we see that Campbell was not at all old. A self-destructive man.
    The land of Spain was owned by a small number of vastly wealthy families, and the poor peasants had no way of buying the land they worked in order to escape their poverty. The land was ripe for revolution. Laurie Lee writes that many of the huge estates had existed unchanged since the time of the Roman Empire. After a year in Spain, the war broke out. He found himself working in a hotel, doing odd jobs and playing his violin in the evenings for the hotel guests on the Costa del Sol - the "Sunshine Coast". Things were getting violent. But suddenly a British gunboat appeared one morning in the bay, and it transported Laurie Lee and another Englishman away from Spain back to the safety of England. There he regretted his hasty departure, and the book ends with him climbing over the Pyrenees Mountains in the middle of winter, back into Spain and into the war, nearly killing himself in a sudden blizzard.

Cooper's  Creek, by Alan Moorehead

     This book describes the expedition of Burke and Wills in the Australian summer of 1860-61 through the middle of the continent from Melbourne in the south up to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north, then back again. The base camp for the expedition was supposed to be on Cooper's Creek, which is a sort of oasis in the middle of Australia where in the summer, the daytime temperature - at least in 1860 - stood at between 110 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The modern settlement of Innamincka lies on the Creek, very near to where Burke and Wills finally expired.
    It is a fascinating story, and I read the book quickly. Back in the 1860s, the tragedy of Burke and Wills galvanized the nation. The failings of some of the people on the expedition, the chaotic organization, made it a very human story. But then in contrast with this, the people who quickly went out to search for the lost explorers in the winter and spring of 1861 were much more competent, traversing vast stretches of country with little fuss and thus showing that travel in the middle of Australia was possible.
    These days, with GPS and satellite telephones, there would be no question of getting lost, or of being unable to tell the others where you are. But back in those days, it took weeks, if not months, to convey a message from Cooper's Creek, or even just from the Darling River, to Melbourne. In the modern world a message bounces from Europe to Australia and back again via the Internet in less than a second. So it would have been nothing for Burke and Wills to just call up their companions and ask for help.
    From the diary of Wills, and the notes both men left behind, they seemed to be sufficiently well supplied with food. According to Moorehead, it was a simple case of scurvy. Vitamin C deficiency. But in 1860 it was well understood that scurvy was caused by a lack of fresh food, and in fact Burke and Wills were eating some of the foods of the Aborigines. According to the Wikipedia article I have linked to above, people now recognize the symptoms of their wasting away as being due to vitamin B1 deficiency, that is to say beriberi. They were eating the seeds of the nardoo plant, which formed the staple diet of the local Aborigines, but they simply did not understand how to prepare this food properly. Incorrectly prepared, it contains a chemical which depletes the body of vitamin B1. However as Wills wrote in his last letter, this death from the extremes of the climate, combined with beriberi, was not entirely unpleasant.
    At the end of the book Moorehead observes that if they had been saved, then today they would be nothing more than obscure characters in a footnote of history. But as it is, they are among the heroes of the early European exploration of Australia.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

     This is African-American literature. Or, to use that extremely politically incorrect word which today is totally taboo and which would undoubtedly raise the hackles of any readers of my little writings here (particularly those of African-American descent), yet which was used continuously by such people as Zora Neale Hurston, and indeed, Martin Luther King, this is a "Negro" novel. Hurston lived from 1891 to 1960, and thus she did not live in the age of political correctness. Instead, she lived in the time of the Harlem Renaissance. The arts, music, literature flourished. In those days, Harlem was the place to be. And in any case, the word "negro" simply means "black" in the Spanish and Portuguese languages. If people of European descent are supposed to be "white", then it seems to me that it would be nicer to refer to them as "Blanco", which is the corresponding Spanish word, rather than the absurd "Caucasian", with its fascist overtones.
    But the reason this book is well and truly Negro literature is due to the dialog with which it is filled. For example, when Joe, who is Janie's second husband (she is the heroine of the book) arrives in a town which is just starting up, he goes on in the following manner:

    "Just like Ah thought," Joe said. "A whole heap uh talk and nobody doin' nothin'. I god, where's de Mayor?" he asked somebody. "Ah want tuh speak wid de Mayor."

    And so forth. This is the way of speaking of people in the Deep South of the U.S.A., even the Blancos (although I think that the use of the substitution "de" for "the" was more characteristic of the Negro population).
    But still, it is the common convention in literature to apply a standardized spelling of English even in dialog, despite the fact that when reading it, we no longer hear the colorful dialect. Thus, according to this convention, Joe would say: "Just like I thought. A whole heap of talk and nobody doing anything. My god, where is the Mayor? I want to speak with the Mayor."
    - Bland, politically correct. Meaningless. -
To the generation of the 1960s, this Deep South talk was an embarrassment, and so Hurston sank into obscurity. Yet now she is considered to be a great writer. And indeed, consider the first sentences of the book in all their flowery elegance:

    Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time.

    At first, I thought that the title of the book was due to the expression "I god", which particularly Janie's second husband was continually saying, and which I have translated above into the common expression "my God", but in the book it sounds as if Joe imagines that he himself is God. In fact though, it came up when Janie and her third husband, Tea Cake, were living in the south of Florida - so far south that it's no longer the "Deep South". They were planting beans near Lake Okeechobee when a hurricane hit. Seeking shelter in a house, they stared at the door being battered by the blasting wind and water. Doing so, "their eyes were watching God".
    Certainly the characters in the book seem to take religion seriously, and we suspect that the author was also burdened with religion. As I have mentioned somewhere else here, it seems to me that the word "God" is unique in that it is the only word in our language which has no particular definition. Therefore people become hysterical when the question arises as to whether a person "believes" in the word "God".
    The main purpose of religion often seems to be to define the difference between one group of people and another. We see this in the horrible wars which go on from generation to generation in the great trouble spots of the world like cancerous sores, never healing, always in the name of "God". If this was the definition of the word "God" in the title of the book, then I am glad that today there is much skepticism in the direction of religion, both in the Negro and in the Blanco population of the U.S.A.

Ghost Light, by Joseph O'Connor

     This is not really a ghost story, although I suppose it is rather concerned with ghosts. We learn, somewhat towards the end of the book, that an old tradition has it that a light must always burn in a theater, day and night, to appease the ghosts wandering about the stage. (And recently there was an article in the paper about such an incandescent bulb in some theater in the U.S.A. which is setting a world record by burning continuously since 1920 or something. It is only said to consume four watts of power, so hopefully it will escape the wrath of the eco-lobby.)
    The story is concerned with the brief romance of the actress Molly Allgood, who was the leading lady in the first performance of John Synge's "The Playboy of the Western World", and the playwright himself. To be honest, until a year or two ago when we read through this play, I had never heard of Synge (pronounced "Sing"). The play didn't strike me as something worthy of huge pathos. Perhaps the jokes in it would have made more sense if we were to have seen an actual performance of the thing.
    As I understand it, it all has to do with the basic tragedy of Ireland. Over the centuries, the Anglo-Saxon population of England dominated and gradually exterminated much of the original Celtic population of the British Islands. The Celtic peoples were deprived of their land, starved, murdered, forced into emigration. And this one-sided conflict was represented by the two conflicting religions of protestants and catholics. Thus we have the tragedy of Molly Allgood and John Synge. She the poor catholic, he the well-to-do protestant.
    At least according to the story of the book - and the author assures us in a statement at the end that we should not believe that his narration has much to do with the real-life drama of Allgood and Synge - Synge's mother was a horribly bigoted example of the Angle-Saxon race. For her, Allgood, being not only a catholic from the slums of Dublin, but worse, an actress, was nothing more than the scum of life. And so the romance was lived in secret. And anyway, Synge was sick and died within the year, putting an end to any hope they might have had of outliving the mother.
    Throughout the book, this Synge is treated as a mystical, god-like creature. The unquestioned and greatest literary figure to have ever graced the Earth with his presence. O'Connor lifts himself to such ecstasies of reverence that the text becomes disjointed, often difficult to follow. We are in the mind of Molly in her reincarnation as a forgotten, destitute old woman, living alone in the slums of London in the year of her death, 1952. Her thoughts swim back and forth throughout her life as an actress, always to the tearful, overwhelmed acclamation of her audience, moved beyond reason by the mystical wonders of the great Synge. The pathos is increased by the text, most of the sentences of which are only sentence fragments; flowery stream-of-consciousness writings, urging us on to feel with the author the great emotional depths of Synge and whatever it is he stood for.
    And so, for me it was a tedious read. Perhaps one must be Irish in order to appreciate this sort of thing.

The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi

     Primo Levi is best known for his book If This is a Man, which I haven't yet read. It is concerned with the year he spent in the concentration camp of Auschwitz, surviving against all odds. But in the present book, only two of the chapters are specifically concerned with that dreadful time. Levi himself was an Italian chemist, and each of the chapters bears the title of one of the elements.
    The first chapter is called "Argon". This element, which nobody really thinks about, makes up about one percent of the Earth's atmosphere. It is the hidden element, mixed in with the air. He compares it with his Jewish ancestors living in Italian society, and it is rather sad to read in this chapter about the words of contempt they had for their Christian neighbors, and the words those neighbors had for them. He doesn't go through the whole of the 92 naturally occurring elements. Instead there are just 21 chapters. The beginning ones - Hydrogen, Zink, Iron - describe phases of the author's life growing up in Turin, becoming interested in chemistry, going climbing in the nearby Alps. Chapter 11 is Cerium, which he found in an alloy with iron in the chemical laboratory at Auschwitz, and which was the means of his obtaining morsels of bread for two months, enabling him to endure until the liberation of the concentration camp. Then later chapters tell of his experiences after the war as a free-lance chemist, and also of his work for a large paint factory in Italy. They are interesting, varied stories. How difficult it often is to discover what is going wrong in the physical world. I know almost nothing of chemistry, and so I was impressed with his stories of the detective work which is often necessary in order to solve some problem in chemistry.
    The next to last chapter is called "Vanadium". The story takes place in the 1960s. Levi is the Director of the chemical laboratory at the paint factory in Turin. The paint is based upon some sort of resin imported from Germany. Yet the problem is that it doesn't dry properly. After application, it remains sticky, oily, indefinitely. It is suspected that there is some problem with the German resin, and an increasingly difficult exchange of letters, vague threats of legal action, begins to take place. Levi remarks that the person signing the letters from the German factory is a Dr. Müller. A very common German name. For example the greatest forward in the history of German football was Gerd Müller, who played for Bayern München. But now one of the stars of Bayern München is Thomas Müller, who was the highest scoring player in the recent World Cup in South Africa. Together, they appear in an amusing TV advertisement for Müller's Milk, which is a large Bavarian company which produces dairy products.
    But despite the many thousands of German Müllers, Levi notices that this Müller who is writing letters defending the resin from the German factory happens to spell some obscure chemical compound in a particular false way, and he remembers that the Dr. Müller who was in charge of the chemical laboratory at Auschwitz also made just this mistake. So he sends him a copy of the German edition of his book If This is a Man, hoping to confront him with his guilt. At first Dr. Müller writes, saying that he was only assigned to the Auschwitz thing at the end of the war. He had understood that the huge chemical factory at Auschwitz was really designed to save the Jewish people by giving them some essential work to do during the war. But he understood that it was horrible. On the other hand, he had saved Levi's life by seeing to it that Levi was selected to work in the chemical laboratory. Also he had valued the discussions he had had with Levi in that laboratory. He hoped to be able to meet with Levi, perhaps somewhere on the Riviera.
    The author was perplexed by this response. He was willing to think of this Dr. Müller as a man who was trying to be sincere, but who was unwilling to face the truth. And so he wrote a more direct letter. After a longer pause, he then received a long, rambling letter from Dr. Müller, in which he tried to explain and understand what had happened. Levi found this to be more sincere. Müller's letter ended with an emotional statement that he would come to visit with Levi in the next couple of weeks. At the same time, Levi's paint factory received an apology from the German factory, saying that they realized that a certain additive, involving the element vanadium, should have been added to their product, and in the future this would be included in all their shipments worldwide.
    Levi thinks that he really doesn't want to be confronted with Dr. Müller after all those years. And a week later, he receives a letter from Müller's wife, telling him that her husband had unexpectedly died.

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, by Eric Newby

     This book was an enjoyable read. Years ago I read his "The Last Grain Race", in which he described a trip from England to Australia and back in a 4-masted windjammer in 1939, bringing wheat to Europe. He had joined as a common sailor, so his wages were hardly more than zero. But he was a young man, I think he was not yet twenty, and he was looking for adventure. The other sailors were mostly robust Finns who gave him a very hard time. It wasn't at all amusing.
    He then fought in World War 2 and was captured as a prisoner-of-war in Italy. Unlike Primo Levy he was not Jewish, and thus, as with most British prisoners-of-war, he had a jolly old time of it. In fact, according to the Afterword in this edition of the book which I read, written by his companion on the Short Walk, Hugh Carless, Newby's experience as a prisoner in Italy was a kind of substitute for the university education which he had missed as a young man. The other prisoners were constantly putting on plays and discussions of literature, and what have you.
    But to get to the book, it starts off with Newby describing ridiculous scenes of his life between 1946 and 1956, where he was working in his family's struggling fashion house, producing lady's dresses. This was not the life for him. Therefore he decided to call on his friend, Hugh Carless - who was a young British diplomat, about to be stationed at Kabul - and ask him to travel together to a place called "Nuristan", which is 100 km or so north-east of Kabul. Of course the Wikipedia article on Nuristan which I have linked to here has photos of American soldiers marching through the place, terrorizing the people. But back in 1956, at the time of the Short Walk, this modern tragedy was far away in the future. Newby and Carless were able to drive about peacefully, engaging some locals from the neighboring, more civilized valley, to accompany them on their walk, and upon entering Nuristan over the extreme passes of the Hindu Kush, they had the feeling that they had walked back into the England of the Middle Ages.
    The main purpose of the walk was to be the first people to reach the summit of the highest mountain in the district, which is named "Mir Samir". Neither Newby nor Carless had much of an idea about climbing. Therefore they decided to travel first to Wales for a weekend and see if they could get somebody to tell them something about it.
    Of course this is also ridiculous. In fact somebody - some university climbing type with the title of Dr. - was prepared to sacrifice a day or two of his holiday to show them what a carabiner, or a piton is. Also two young waitresses in the climbing hotel in Wales took the two young men out for an afternoon climb on some rocks. And that was the extent of their preparations. They seemed to have sufficient amounts of money, for they amassed a large supply of equipment, looking through books in order to get an idea of what might be needed.
    Upon arrival at the Hindu Kush village which was the start of their walk, and speaking Persian, which apparently was widely spoken there, they engaged three skeptical guides, or rather people with three horses in order to carry all the equipment. During the weekend in Wales, Newby had noticed that his bushwalking shoes were falling apart, and thus he had bought a pair of Italian climbing boots made in the fashion of those days with pointy toes. Putting them on for the first time, he discovered that they were extremely painful. And after the first day's stage of 10 km or so, his feet were all bloody. But he decided to persevere. Mir Samir, while being only about 6000 meters tall, is still nothing to joke about. Newby and Carless were so foolhardy as to reach a very dangerous height, perhaps only 500 meters or so from the summit. But the whole reckless and irresponsible expedition did not end in disaster at that point since they were sensible enough to turn back.
    Owing to the humor of Newby's writing and his wonderful descriptions of the magnificent landscape and the isolated, nearly untouched inhabitants, this book has become a classic of travel and adventure writing. It's a bit like that British humorist of more recent times "Eddy the Eagle", launching himself into the air on the Olympic ski jump with a ridiculous, if dangerous, amateur style. Thankful to land unhurt a very short distance down the slope.
    You can read through the archives of the Himalayan Club, and you see that the first ascent was in 1959. The expedition described there consisted of real climbers, forerunners of the hippy generation, driving out to Afghanistan in a VW bus, taking in not only Mir Samir, but a number of other first ascents as well. The Internet site of the Himalayan Club describes hundreds of other equally obscure expeditions.
    And while on this subject, I find it astonishing that the account of von Hentig's extraordinary trek through that part of the world during World War 1, which I have described elsewhere, has not been translated into English.

The Collected Short Stories, by Anton Chekhov

     I've finally made it to the end of all these Chekhov stories. Most were very dreary. But at least the last - A Marriageable Girl - did end on an optimistic note.
    Some years ago there was a television film which was supposed to be based on a Chekhov story, but rather than being set in the bleakness of Russia, it was transferred to the Australian bush of the late 19th or early 20th centuries. The story was that some relative of the family arrives from London, where he was a music critic, or whatever; he gradually drains the family's finances with his insatiable thirst for expensive wines, clothes, and other things which hardly have a place out in the bush; and we become more and more aware of how little is behind the extravagant estimation he has of himself. Although these Collected Stories run through four large volumes, none of them corresponds to the story of the film, so I suppose it was a Chekhov play rather than a short story. (In fact, looking it up, I see that it must have been based on the play Uncle Vanya.) But the transplantation of anything of Chekhov from its original heavy Russian scenery to Australia must, of necessity, result in a total distortion of the thing.
    Chekhov's standard theme is the following. It is a small town somewhere in Russia. The hero, or at least the protagonist, has been living in the "outside world", namely in St. Petersburg, or Moscow, where everything is light and wonderful. While living there, he was exposed to the romantic notion that Nature might also be light and wonderful as well. Thus he buys an estate and resolves to live happily ever after, in harmony both with Nature and with the bucolic inhabitants of Nature, who, in earlier, less happy times were serfs, but now are thought of as peasants. The hero then decides to get along well with his bucolic neighbors, perhaps building a school, or whatever. But the peasants steal the building materials and everything else they can get their hands on, trample all over his ground, ruining his crops, get drunk on vodka the whole time. Everything submerges in a mess of filth, vodka, corruption. And in the end, the hero escapes from this nightmare, back to the "outside world".
    In many of the stories, Chekhov tells us of his dreams for Revolution. He imagines that some time in the future, perhaps in 50 years time, say in the year 1940, everything will be better. Thankfully he died young, thus sparing himself the reality of the Russian Revolution. What would he have thought of the horror of Stalin? Now, a hundred years later, perhaps things are gradually changing for the better. But I think that the tradition of brutal peasants, drowning themselves in filth and vodka, still lives on.
    Chekhov's second theme is love. But love in the claustrophobic world of provincial Russia. From his stories, it would seem that the only reason a man or a woman married was in order to immediately get into as many possible "affairs" with other married people as possible, and then to philosophize on the meaninglessness of love.

Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding

     I first read this novel many years ago after seeing the movie, which starred Albert Finney and Susannah York. I got a paperback copy back then, which had been "modernized" for the consumption of modern-day movie-goers by removing the many philosophical observations Fielding makes on the characters of people and the emotions which drive us from one thing to another. Without all of these old-fashioned, 18th century reflections, the book becomes a moderately long story, written in a familiar style, similar to, say Oliver Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield, or any number of other equally amusing romances. But then eight or ten years ago I read the non-purged book in an elegant edition which I had borrowed from the library. What a joy it was to read! And so now, when I mentioned it in our little reading circle, the others decided to read it for our next meeting. So I thought I would re-read it again, this time downloading it onto my smartphone as an ebook.
    I had forgotten many of the details of the story. Perhaps this time I didn't laugh quite so often at Fielding's jokes, but it was again wonderful to read the book. His life was shorter than that of Johann Sebastian Bach, but he survived him by four years. Living in England, he personally knew the great Shakespearian actor David Garrick. He often mentions Handel's music. He tells us that he was good friends with William Hogarth. Fielding's amusing observations on the life of those days seems to me to be much more valuable than the modern-day speculations of historians. We really get a feeling for what things must have been like.

Jamaica Inn, by Daphne Du Maurier

     This summer we spent two weeks in Plymouth, following a number of the walks in the book "100 Walks in Southwest England". One of these in particular was on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, starting at the village of Minions. Unfortunately, our old TomTom GPS navigator didn't have Minions in its map of England, and so we thought the best thing would be to just drive to Bodmin. After all, you would think that Bodmin Moor was at Bodmin, wouldn't you?
    For people who haven't been to Cornwall, let me tell you that it is extremely hilly, and if you get off the main roads then you find yourself on narrow roads just wide enough for a single car, confined between high vertical walls of thick hedges. Every hundred meters or so the road widens slightly so that if you encounter another car driving in the opposite direction then you have to stop and back up to a wider bit. However we found that the natives of Cornwall were very good-natured, and they were usually quicker in this process of making room for passing than we were.
    Upon arrival at Bodmin, we found it to be a town in a fertile valley. Not at all moor-like. If we had taken the main road to Launceston, then we would have passed directly by Jamaica Inn, soon getting up onto the high moor. The geology of Cornwall is interesting. Apparently these moors are situated on a granite foundation. The soil is not very fertile, and thus the moors are barren, windswept, mostly devoid of trees. More to the southwest, on the Lizard Peninsula, there are other kinds of rocks, containing tin, copper, and many other things which were mined in antiquity, leading to trade even with the ancient Phoenicians.
    In any case, in our search for Minions we did not take the main road to Launceston, but rather we headed off in some direction, more or less towards the east, becoming lost on these narrow, confining roads. The people we encountered on the way gradually pointed us in the right direction, and we finally did arrive at Minions in the early afternoon.
    A few days later we decided to drive over to Tintagel to see all about King Arthur. Unlike Bodmin Moor, Tintagel was filled with thousands of tourists. Going into one shop, filled with King Arthur kitsch, I noticed that it also had a number of paperback books, not all of which were devoted to esoteric topics involving the mystery of the round table, and so forth. And so I bought this book by Daphne Du Maurier, and I have now read it.
    At first I thought it was also kitsch. But it turned out to be a good read with a surprising ending which I will not describe here in order not to spoil it for anybody who might read this and thus be motivated to read the book.
    Back in the old days, it seems that there were "wreckers" in Cornwall. That is, bands of people who lured ships onto the rocks, killing the sailors and passengers on the ships, stealing whatever of value they might find. I have read that such things were also practiced on the sandy islands of the North Sea, along the coasts of Holland and Germany. In fact on one holiday to the island of Ameland, I got a map of the various shipwrecks in the waters around the island. It only covered the period from 1800 to the present. The map was covered with a huge number of these wrecks! Thousands of sailors must have died just in the 19th century, and just near to the island of Ameland. But only a few of the wrecks on the map were in the 20th century. Back in the days of square-rigged ships, when approaching a coast downwind, disaster was always immanent. What a contrast to now, with ships under power, independent of the winds, guided by GPS, hopefully with more complete maps than those which TomTom were issuing a few years ago.

Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, by Haruki Murakami

     Amazon.com sent me an email to say that a new book of Murakami will come out in a month or two. This led me to look at the list of his old books to see if there was anything I hadn't yet read. And indeed, I saw this one. So I ordered it and have now read it.
    Somehow it seems to me that there is a fine line between pure fantasy writing and the mixture of the fantastic with normal reality, in the style of much of the rest of Murakami's fiction. The difference is that pure fantasy writing is often heavy-handed, serious. The authors of such fiction are presenting us with strange, imaginary worlds, and they are making great efforts to describe all the details, the mechanisms of such worlds. We end up with some sort of Star-Trek nonsense, where everything becomes mechanical, explaining the details of this or that fantasy mechanism. Some people think that such things are wonderful. For me they are simply boring.
    In contrast to this, Murakami's usual style is to have normal people doing crazy things in the real world, giving us jokes to laugh about, and then occasionally the fantastic intrudes upon normality, adding to the whole story and in the end making us think about the world, life, and everything else.
    In this book there are alternating chapters, where the narrator is in the "normal" world, and then alternately in the fantasy world of his imagination. But even the normal world is full of fantasy.
    The basic idea is that in order to conceal the contents of computers, special people, called "calcutecs", have their unconscious minds messed about in some way, perhaps splitting the left and right hemispheres of the brain into separate entities, or something. Then the information which is to be scrambled into a non-readable form is unconsciously transmitted from one side to another and then written down by the calcutec. Only he can then decode the information by passing it back the other way through the brain. So the story - coupled with some crazy scenes of fantastic goings on in the underground of Tokyo - is that the brain of the narrator, a calcutec, becomes messed up, and he drifts off into crazy cuckoo land. His experiences, and the geography of this cuckoo land, are the subject of the alternative chapters.
    The book was first published in 1985, by which time the technique of public-key cryptography had become well established, thus solving the problem. Given that the plot of the book is primarily concerned with cryptography, then surely Murakami should have known about such things. Also, in the "real" world of the story, it is said that the narrator has the choice of ending his life in this world, bringing things to a nice clean end, or else he can drift off into his dream world, where he will be forced to live on for all eternity. This is like the dream world of Christian mythology. Imagine sitting up on a cloud as an angel, strumming a harp, twiddling the fingers, and knowing that this is supposed to go on and on into infinity! What an unimaginable hell of boredom! Even after 10 years of harp strumming, even 10,000,000 years, even a whole google of years, still your horrible eternal sentence of harp strumming will hardly have started. You will be faced with a never ending infinity of further such intervals. Such a dreadful idea is beyond our imagination.
    But according to Murakami's story, the eternity in the dream world - the "End of the World" - is achieved in a finite time using Zeno's paradox. Namely that the end of an interval of time can never be reached, since we first have to travel half way there, then another quarter, then another eighth, and so forth, never coming to the end. What nonsense.

The Monster of Florence, by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi

     When turning on the computer, I usually click into the BBC news site, or the Guardian, just to see what is happening in the world. And of course they have had many stories about the murder of Meredith Kercher in the town of Perugia in Italy in 2007. She was an English student, visiting the University in Perugia for a year. She stayed in a house with a number of other students, including the American Amanda Knox. The whole situation is described in great detail in the Wikipedia page here. In particular, soon after the murder, the police, together with the district attorney, Giuliano Mignini, decided that Knox, together with her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, an Italian student at the university, had killed Kercher in a bizarre, sexually inspired sadistic orgy, perhaps involving ritualistic elements of black magic, or what have you. And yet there was no evidence whatsoever that they had actually been in Kercher's bedroom, where her blood-stained body was found.
    On the other hand, there was much evidence - fingerprints, blood, DNA, and so forth - that another man, the drug dealer Rudy Guede, was present at the scene of the crime. Furthermore, Guede had immediately fled from Italy and was only found a few weeks later, riding on a train in Germany without a ticket. He admitted freely to being present at the murder, to having raped Kercher (although of course he maintained that it was by mutual consent), but claimed that another, unspecified man was the actual murderer, or something. So you would think that the crime had been solved. Obviously Knox and Sollecito had been falsely accused.
    But no. Attorney Mignini had already gone public with his strange black magic theory, and so in order to "save face" he had to stick with it, somehow claiming that the drug dealer Guede was also involved with such occult rituals. The Italian press lapped it up, making Knox, the citizen of George W. Bush's evil U.S.A., into a symbol of depraved devilish evil. Much of the English press followed this as well. The fact that she had a beautiful, innocent face only increased the wrath of the Italian press and the zeal of Attorney Giuliano Mignini.
    After four years languishing in an Italian prison, just last week she and Sollecito have been cleared by the Court of Appeals, and Mignini has been disgraced. The Guardian had a number of stories, giving the background to the whole thing, and in particular it was said that Mignini turned his anger on the American author Douglas Preston, saying to the press that he and his book, The Monster of Florence, was the source of all evil. Thus I immediately clicked over to Amazon and ordered the book, which I have now read almost non-stop. A fascinating read!

    The book describes other crimes, not related to the tragic story of Meredith Kercher. Once, in 1974, and five times in the early 1980s, somebody committed a series of strange, horrible killings. Each time it was concerned with a young couple, parked in their car at night in some lonely place in the hills surrounding Florence, making love. They had both been shot, every time with the same Beretta .22 pistol. After killing them, the murderer then removed the body of the young girl from the car and mutilated it, removing the female organs. In no case had the murderer raped the girl, or her corpse.
    Eventually the Beretta was connected to an earlier murder involving a brutal and degenerate clan of Sardinians living in Tuscany. Their name was Vinci. (Presumably unrelated to the renaissance composer Pietro Vinci.) One after another they were imprisoned, yet while each in turn was in prison, the Monster struck again, thus proving that that one was not the actual monster.
    So the feeling grew, together with new groups of police and investigating attorneys under the direction of Chief Inspector Michele Giuttari, that the Sardinian connection was a dead end, and instead new methods should be tried. Using a computer, a list of all possible people convicted of sexual crimes in the Florence region who were not in prison at the times of the monster's crimes was compiled. A rather horrible and monstrous candidate was found: an old, half literate wife beater, raper of his daughters, murderer of his fiancée back in 1950 or so. A horrible old man. Giuttari also arrested a couple of his degenerate old "picnicking friends" as well. There was not a shred of concrete evidence against them. But they were so repulsive that it was easy to just have a show trial and throw them into prison, and almost everybody was happy that the problem of the Monster of Florence was solved. And for some reason, there were no more monster attacks after 1985.
    Then the idea gradually settled in Giuttari's mind that these people were too imbecilic to have originated the idea of such ritual slaughterings of young women, extracting the organs for some unimaginable purpose. Therefore they must have done it on the orders of other, more important, satanic people. The old aristocracy of Tuscany. Or maybe those rich medical professionals. Or perhaps degenerate elements within the Catholic Church. Who knows? The whole thing reminds me of Umberto Eco's book Foucault's Pendulum.
    A witch hunt developed. Crazy theories abounded. People were denounced and arrested. The American author Thomas Harris descended upon Florence to write a best-selling thriller, Hannibal, which was made into a film, shot on location in the palaces of Florence, starring Anthony Hopkins. Chief Inspector Michele Giuttari himself developed a literary streak, writing a best-selling book on the Monster. But it was all without the slightest shred of concrete evidence.
    Douglas Preston, the author of the present book, and an author of many previous best-selling crime novels, arrived in Florence in the year 2000, not having heard about the Monster story, but rather with the idea of writing a story concerning a lost painting of the renaissance artist Masaccio. In order to get some background to the crime scene in Florence, he contacted the second author of this book, Mario Spezi, whom he was told was a famous crime reporter. One thing led to another and Preston abandoned the Masaccio book, instead becoming increasingly obsessed with the Monster story.
    Preston and Spezi show quite plausibly that the Monster was not some vast and ridiculous satanic conspiracy of the old Tuscan aristocracy. Instead it must have been Antonio Vinci, the son of that horrible Salvatore Vinci who killed Antonio's mother and then abandoned him as a baby.
    By showing how ridiculous and incompetent the investigations of Giuttari were, Spezi himself became a victim of the witch hunt, being thrown into prison, and Preston was nearly drawn into it himself. Preston's interrogator was Giuliano Mignini, who was later the interrogator of Amanda Knox. Preston describes clearly Mignini's overbearing tactics. Both Giuttari and Mignini were later charged with altering evidence, misusing their positions, and Mignini has been convicted of those crimes. It is unclear if he will be thrown into prison himself.
    How strange it is that such a person was nevertheless allowed to continue in his role as investigating and prosecuting attorney, bringing Amanda Knox into his world of sadistic fantasy and forcing both her and Raffaele Sollecito to spend four years in prison. At least the saving grace of the Italian justice system, as Preston tells us, is its system of appeals. The appellate judges are completely apart and independent of the judges and attorneys in the first trials. Thus such glaring abuses are usually corrected, and as a result Italy has a relatively small population of prisoners at any given time - in marked contrast with the situation in the U.S.A.

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

     I've hardly read anything of Dickens. In fact I can't remember anything at all. Perhaps I did start A Christmas Carol some time ago, but stopped reading it before coming to the end. Just now I have started a search through all the book shelves here, and I see that I have, in fact, read "My Early Times", and also "Dickens in Europe", which were published by the Folio Society years ago. But where is my copy of A Christmas Carol? It was in a volume with a couple of other Christmas stories by Dickens. There are simply too many books here. In any case, reading A Tale of Two Cities just now did not involve buying still another book, adding to the huge amounts of paper which are consumed by humanity. Instead I downloaded it for free onto my smartphone, and have read it that way.
    Perhaps those other two books put me off Dickens, since they were rather heavy going. Depressing. Somehow we associate him with Marx and Engles, describing poverty, injustice. Were the masses of people back in those days such groveling creatures?
    In the present book, Dickens presents us towards the beginning with a scene of Paris life. A delivery service is bringing a barrel of wine to a wine shop in a Paris slum. Unfortunately the barrel falls off the cart, bursting open, spilling wine all over the muddy street. Immediately, the slum-dwellers jump into the puddle of wine, slurping it up, presumably along with mouthfuls of mud, excrement, and whatever further objectionable substances one could imagine to exist on the street of an 18th century Paris slum. The purpose of this scene is to show us how poor and down-trodden the people were, and how ripe the country was for a revolution, overthrowing the oppressive aristocrats.
    But it is not as if some degenerate aristocrat is standing there with a sword, or a gun, forcing the people to grovel in the mud, slurping up wine. No. They are supposed to be doing this voluntarily! Somehow this seems to me to be rather far-fetched. After all, the wine delivered to a slum-side wine bar would hardly be expected to be of high quality. Even drinking it from a glass, rather than mud, would probably give you a splitting headache. And I hardly think that a person dying of thirst would find much relief in a mouthful of cheap muddy wine. Better to just go to the Seine and drink a bit of river water, which, while probably not being particularly clean in those days, would certainly have been an improvement on such spilled wine.
    However, reading on, the story turned out to be an interesting adventure story, with a climax in the chaos of The Reign of Terror, following the storming of the Bastille. It was an enjoyable read. And we get a feeling for the horror of that period.
    Quite clearly, Dickens was all for social revolution, although of a more mild, gradual kind than that of revolutionary France. But all of this reminded me of Ishiguro's book, An Artist of the Floating World, where the main character is a Japanese man, an artist, in the 1920s and 30s, who also sees poverty, injustice. And he sees a way out in fascism which, along with communism, was the revolutionary idea of that period. Similarly, we detect everywhere in this book Dickens' feeling of the superiority of everything English to everything French. And perhaps - similarly to the aggressive revolutions of the 20th century - this is reflected in the oppressive colonial system of the British Empire.
    But why are people better off today than they were in the time of Dickens? Is it because the aristocrats all had their heads sliced off by the guillotine, or at least, as in the case of England, because the aristocrats were taxed away into oblivion? Such ideas appeal to revolutionaries. But it seems to me that reality is different from this.
    The reason we are living in a time of plenty, rather than groveling in the Dickensian streets, is that the world is now full of machines which do the work for us. Electricity flows with the flip of a switch. One man can plow a field in an hour or two using a diesel tractor. And it takes no longer to harvest a field of wheat. A hundred years ago, many men would have to toil away for days to accomplish the same thing, and in the process half the wheat would have been lost in the dirt. How absurd it is that there are people today who think of themselves as being revolutionary, yet whose goal it is to abolish the basis of our well-being, doing away with machines; whose goal it is to reduce humanity again to the grinding toil of Dickens' time.

The Possessions of Doctor Forrest, by Richard T. Kelly

     Three medical doctors who were all friends at school in Scotland are now practicing their various specialties in London.
    We read all about this through alternating chapters, quoting the journals of the various doctors, and a few other characters as well - girlfriends, patients, etc. The reviewer of the book in the Guardian objected to this, since in modern times obviously no normal person keeps a journal. Instead they write emails, communicate via facebook (whatever that is), and so forth. Also these "journals" are all written in the same style, with lots of dialogue, of a kind which would hardly be written into a journal. But I didn't find this device to be at all disturbing. After all, the book is a rather ridiculous fantasy anyway. Perhaps the problem is that the author tells us it is supposed to be a "Gothic" novel, which places it in bygone times when some people might have written journals; but since the story takes place in the present-day, this is considered to be an anachronism. Anyway, it kept me reading on until late at night.
    The doctors Lochran and Hartford experience many strange things. Life seems to disintegrate around them. One after another, the people they know die under mysterious circumstances. Their innermost secrets are revealed, driving them to ruin. All of this is accompanied by the mysterious disappearance of Doctor Forrest. It is only in the last chapter of the book, "The Confession of Doctor Forrest", that we find out what is really going on.
    At first I was disappointed, since there is no rational explanation. Instead it turns out to be a variation on the story of Faust. But as is more appropriate in contemporary literature, the Devil is not some silly man dressed up in a red costume with a pointed tail. Instead she is a beautiful young woman who offers Doctor Forrest an unforgettable sexual experience. Yet the good doctor finds himself not up to the task. He is getting old! Therefore the She-Devil offers him the opportunity of discarding his present, middle-aged body, and instead entering the young body of whichever victim he might choose. In order to pass from one body to the next, he must first stab the new body with his Number 15 surgical scalpel.
    And so the book turned into an amusing description of his possession of one body after another. His first experiment was with a young sculptor who was the new boyfriend of his last girlfriend. But for various reasons he becomes dissatisfied with that body. He is particularly irritated by the fact that the girlfriend, in the midst of a satisfying sexual encounter, exclaims how unpleasant her last boyfriend, namely Doctor Forrest, was. Thus he discards that body and moves to the next. A couple of his adventures take place within female bodies, even those which he had possessed in a more conventional sense in his original incarnation. This leads to interesting observations on the differences between the male and the female.
    It is not all fun and games. Most of the new bodies lead lives which are vastly inferior to his original life, and with all of these deaths, the police and everybody else are after him. In the end, or at least at the end of the book, he has entered the body of Doctor Lochran's son. He tries to commit suicide to escape from all of this Faustian horror, but Doctor Lochran saves him, and since he has now become his own godson, he decides to try to live on happily ever after. An enjoyable book.

Gideon's Sword, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

     The book about the Monster of Florence, written by Douglas Preston, was so interesting that when I saw this one in the bookshop, I decided to buy it too. It has turned out to be a fast-paced, "action" novel, rather like reading the story of such silly movies as "Mission Impossible", or "The Bourne Identity". But still, reading a book is a more peaceful experience than going to the movies and being subjected to two hours of loud noises, imitating gunfire or bomb explosions, combined with hectic camera work. So I enjoyed just letting my mind be carried on from one bit of nonsense in this story to the next, at a pace slower than such a movie. After all, it is sometimes pleasant to just immerse oneself in needless fluff from time to time. But it surprised me that Douglas Preston writes this sort of thing. However I see that the authors have already sold the movie rights into Hollywood, so it is clear that they are doing it - probably very successfully - with the expectation of making lots of money.
    The basic story is that the "bad guys" are the Chinese. (I think that twenty years ago, for the purposes of books such as this, the bad guys were supposed to be Japanese. Now the blame for everything evil in the world, as far as it is not directed at Arabian peoples, is put on the Chinese. This must be due to the fact that the Chinese own much of the debt of the U.S.A.) In typical James Bond style, the Chinese have invented something which must be evil, perhaps some new weapon, and the hero, a ridiculous character named Gideon Crew, is assigned the task of Saving the World. While the good 'ol U.S. of A. is represented by this great hero of goodness, the evil Chinese put their horrible, slimy fighter, whose absurd, animal-like name is "Nodding Crane", into the field of combat.
    Nodding Crane is unlike his somewhat overweight, crude counterpart in the movie "Goldfinger". He is not only a ruthless, robot-like killer, employing the magical virtues of far-eastern martial arts. In addition, he had learned to imitate modern American culture to such an extent that he can strum his guitar and sing some sort of modern pop songs in a way which is even superior to the American practitioners of such arts, such as are heard on the radio, or CD, or music videos, or whatever other means the youths of America which are most likely to go to the movie "Gideon's Sword" might employ to listen to such music.
    Yes, what an unsettling idea to titillate potential movie-goers. Especially those of the "Caucasian" ilk, who imagine that the U.S.A. is being over-run by hoards of mindless Chinese, or at least people who look like they might be Chinese. The Chinese can even copy our music!
    In the excitement of writing this book, it seems to me that Preston and Child made a number of small factual mistakes (even though they do try to place the settings in real places). For example, on page 184, when Gideon is fast-talking his way into another impossible situation, he shouts at some official at an airport that "We've got a flight midway across the Pacific with a known terrorist on board - they let the son of a bitch on in Lagos".
    Well, O.K. I've also never been to Lagos, and I have no intention of going there. And for all I care, it could also be in the middle of the Pacific, along with Hawaii, Tahiti, and all those other places. Still, I would think that the airline employee with whom he is shouting might tend to become skeptical after our hero voices such a sentence. After all, even the "Dreamliner" is incapable of flying all the way from Lagos the wrong way around the globe to finally land in the U.S.A. And if it were to be making an improbable journey from Lagos to the U.S.A. with a stop to fill up, say in Peking, then the poor "terrorist", who would have been sitting in the plane for 30 or 40 hours or more, would hardly be capable of doing much upon arrival.
    But what is the great weapon which the Chinese, in their evil way, have invented? According to the story, it is a room-temperature superconductor. Thus the Chinese could secretly produce wires made of this substance which would conduct electricity with no losses due to the heat produced by electrical resistance. The book then asserts that by this means, the Chinese will take over the world. "Fossil" fuel use will decrease by 90% (thus saving the world from having the sky falling down upon us). Furthermore, electrical cars will now be able to travel thousands of miles on almost no electricity at all, etc. Thus OPEC, Esso (or whatever it is now called), and so forth, will all be put out of business. But our hero, Gideon, has made contact with the American Chapter of the Falun Gong, with their swastika flag (although the hooks of their swastika are pointing in the opposite direction to that which was chosen by Hitler). And it turns out that unlike the Nazis, the Falun Gong, at least in their American Chapter, are wonderful people, in the mold of that modern-day hero, Julian Assange, and they have powerful Internet servers, exposing all of the evil secrets of the world to the clear light of day.
    But the problem with this is that if you are going to write a bit of fantastical nonsense, then you should keep things at least vaguely in touch with the real world. And I see that, at least at the time I am writing this, the Falun Gong has not yet startled us by including in their all-powerful Internet servers new revelations about the existence of room-temperature superconductors. Even if we were to wake up tomorrow to turn on our computers and receive such news, the impact would not be as great as envisioned by Preston and Child.
    After all, most of the fuel we burn - over 50% - goes into heating houses. For that purpose, superconductors would be useless. On the contrary, looking at the sad state of our real world, we see that the evil, moneyed people who are in power have made it illegal to use anything other than poisonous mercury-vapor light-bulbs (manufactured in China) for lighting our houses. Yet the traditional, banned, incandescent light-bulbs, using the principle of electrical resistance, produced heat as well as light, thus helping to warm houses in the winter when they were mainly in use. And while it may be true that superconducting wires in an electrical car would eliminate the heat losses in the transmission of electricity from the battery to the electrical motor, still, that would hardly make any difference at all. Almost all of the energy expended in the motion of a car goes into the heat produced by the mechanical resistance of the wheels, drive train, and so on, and also the heat generated in the air by turbulence produced by the motion of the car through the air. If anything, I would imagine that superconducting wires might be heavier than traditional copper wires, thus adding to the weight of the car and thus restricting its range even further than the poor results we see with conventional technology.

Caleb's Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks

     A wonderful book. The story takes place in the Massachusetts colony of the 1660s, just 40 years after the Mayflower landed at Plymouth. But the college at Harvard, which this year celebrates its 375th anniversary, was already 24 years old in 1660. When thinking about these American universities, I think about the huge explosion, both in the numbers of young people who these days believe that going to college is necessary in order to satisfy some sorts of expectations, and also in the student debt, which will ruin the lives of a large proportion of those students. But looking at what Harvard has to say for itself in the Internet, I see that its fees are based on the incomes of the parents of its students. Thus parents whose incomes are less than $60,000 need pay nothing at all for the tuition as well as room and board of their children who attend Harvard. For higher incomes, progressively more must be paid by the parents. Reading this gives me a feeling of empathy for that great university.
    I also see that at present, as much as 1% of the undergraduate population is "Native American", that is "Indian". But back in the 1660s, the Indian population of Harvard was much greater than just one percent. And the first Indian to obtain his bachelor's degree was Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk. Apparently there is not a great deal of information about this person which has survived in the annals of Harvard University. Geraldine Brooks includes a short Afterword in the book, summarizing what is known of his life. And so this book is a novel, imagining what the life of Caleb might have been like.
    Geraldine Brooks is an Australian, and according to the information in her website, she lives some of the time in Sydney, and the rest on Martha's Vineyard. And indeed, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk was a native of Martha's Vineyard. (I will not try to reproduce the unpronounceable Indian name here.) The story is narrated by Bethia Mayfield. In fact, the first English settlers at Martha's Vineyard were the Mayhew family, and so Bethia might be thought of as an imagined daughter of this real family.
    It is a complicated story, so I will not try to summarize it here. We are given a feeling for various words of those days which are now so antiquated as to be completely forgotten, as well as the religious superstition which permeated society. The 20 or 30 students at Harvard, at least according to this book, did nothing more than study Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, under the single professor, Charles Chauncy. The idea was presumably to prepare the students to enter polite society, engaging in trivial, but intellectual, banter in any one of these three ancient languages, either from the pulpit, or else at cocktail parties (or whatever the equivalant phenomenon was in 1660). What a mind-deadening idea! At least Bethis's brother, who at first had the ambition to become a priest, decided to do something sensible in life and became a successful farmer. Also Bethia's husband, who at first was a tutor of these useless subjects at Harvard, travels with his wife to Padua in Italy, where he attends the university there and learns medicine.
    The real-life Caleb had the daunting task of not only learning those languages to a sufficient extent to engage in such banter, but in addition he learned English sufficiently in order to impersonate an English gentleman. For me, who is barely able to cope with only two languages, both of which are neither ancient nor dead, this seems incredible. And indeed, the real-life Caleb, as well as the fictional one of this book, withered away soon after getting his degree, dying of exhaustion and "consumption".
    The really impressive figure in the book was Caleb's uncle, Tequamuck. I wonder if the real-life Caleb had such a magnificent kinsman. Tequamuck stood resolutely against the great wave of English colonization which was about to overwhelm his people. Yet some remnant of the Indians of Martha's Vineyard still remain on the island, and Geraldine Brooks apparently consulted them when writing the book.

What is the What, by Dave Eggers (Valentino Achak Deng)

    A difficult book to read. It is concerned with the "Lost Boys" of Sudan. Back in the 1980s, Valentino Achak Deng was a small boy in the village of Marial Bai in the Southwest of Sudan, on the southern side of the Bahr Al-Ghazal River, a tributary of the Nile, which now seperates the newly founded Republic of South Sudan from the north. Suddenly wild hoards of horsemen from Hell rode through the village, burning everything, killing everyone, taking women and children as slaves. The young Achak ran through the night, hiding in the woods. And then he ran further. He was lucky to run into a group of boys like himself who were running away, and who had managed to escape the slavers. They were led by an older boy, whose name was Dut, and who is one of the heroes of this story.
    The boys set out on a trek across Africa, hoping to be saved in Ethiopia. They were just 6 or 8 or 10 years old. They had lost their families. They had no idea what Ethiopia was. Was it paradise?
    Looking it up in GoogleEarth, I see that the distance from Mairal Bai in a straight line to the refugee camp at Pinyudo on the Gilo River in Ethiopia is about 800 km. But the boys were not walking in a straight line. It must have been 1500 or even 2000 km that they walked. A real death march. Then after living in a kind of purgatory in Ethiopia for a couple of years, the Mengistu regime was overthrown, and suddenly the Pinyudo camp was itself attacked by hoards of apocalyptic riders from Hell, killing everything that moved. Achak was able to escape back across the border to Sudan, and then there followed a further long trek south into the desert of northern Kenya, where the Kakuma refugee camp was set up by the United Nations. There Achak stayed, along with thousands of other surviving Lost Boys, as well as many further refugees from Sudan. After years of growing up, being taken in by a family in the camp, he was given the opportunity to be brought to the United States where he could live freely, to become a student.
    What a dreadful story! And yet it is the reality of life for millions of people in the world today. A friend of Achak's in Marial Bai was named Moses, a small boy, and he was taken as a slave, tied onto a horse for days, branded behind the ear. He was then imprisoned with many other children, and the slave owners took the children every couple of days and drew blood from them for transfusions. They were being "milked". But Moses was able to run away and eventually he also escaped to Kakuma, and then to the United States. At one stage of his captivity (or was it another boy? there are so many horrors here that I have lost track) he was loaded into a train along with hundreds of other children and women, so tightly that they nearly suffocated. The men were loaded in the next wagon of the train. As with the Nazis, it was said that the train would take them to some place of refuge, but in reality it was a death train. The wagon with the men was set on fire, and all the men were burned alive. A true Holocaust, in the original sense of the word.

    Valentino Achak Deng told his story to the author Dave Eggers, and since he couldn't remember all of the details of the things which happened: what people said when he was just a boy, they decided to call this book a novel. Yet according to the subtitle, it is "The Autobiography of  Valentino Achak Deng".
    It begins with Valentino in his apartment in Atlanta, Georgia. He has already been in the United States for five years. Valentino is not really the name he was given by his family in Marial Bai. It was given to him by the local Catholic priest in the village. He was also called Dominic in the refugee camp at Kakuma, but that is another story. For the purposes of living in the United States, the name Valentino seems most appropriate.
    A woman rings the doorbell to his apartment in Atlanta, asking if she could use his mobile telephone. He lets her in, and suddenly a man with a gun also forces his way in threating him. They rob the apartment. They are both "African-Americans", and they taunt him as being not one of them. The man says:
    "Are you telling me what to do, motherfucker?"
    "Tell me that, Africa, are you telling me what to do, motherfucker?"
And so forth. Valentino is afraid of these African-Americans. Many of his friends, other Lost Boys from Kakuma, have been attacked by African-Americans. What is it with them? At one stage, between pistol-whipping Valentino and kicking him in the face, the man seems to say that Valentino is a representative of the class of Africans who enslaved his ancestors hundreds of years ago and sold them to the slave traders. What a bitter distortion of reality!
    Is it true that the average African-American on the streets hates refugees from Africa? This is certainly what is said in the book. And if it is true, what could be the real reason? Surely it is not the idea that African refugees in America are slave traders. Despite all recent evidence of the corruption of modern American society, I still imagine - perhaps naively - that slave traders do not play any particular role in modern American life. Surely the real reason for such hatred, if it exists, would be that such African-Americans would consider themselves to be victims in a derived sense through the history of their ancestors. Thus it would be offensive for them to be confronted with Africans who have been directly victimized, and who are then being helped by the European-Americans. After all, the ancestors of those European-Americans were the victimizers of the original African-American slaves.
    What a difficult world we live in! It seems to me that almost all of the horrible little wars we see around the world these days are caused by people competing amongst themselves to be considered the greatest of victims so that they are justified in inflicting their horrible revenge. What a world of complainers, of weaklings, we live in.
    And so Valentino tells his story in his imagination to these people who are mugging him. It becomes somewhat dreamlike. Did the real Valentino Achak Deng really get attacked in Atlanta in this dreadful way? Is this the common experience of refugees in the United States?
    We learn more and more of Valentino's story as the story of the robbery progresses. The attackers leave the apartment. Valentino has been knocked unconscious, and he awakes to find that he has been tied up, and a small boy is watching television in his kitchen. So he tells the small boy in his imagination further details of his story. The attackers come, taking the small boy and the rest of their bounty. Valentino's roommate, another of the Lost Boys, finally comes back to the apartment and so frees Valentino from his bondage. They call the police, and Valentino imagines revenge. He can tell the police many details about the criminals, so that they can be caught and he and his roommate can recover their possessions. But only after hours does a disinterested policewoman come. She listens to his story and then tells him that the police will take no further action. There are many such robberies in Atlanta every day. The police have other things to do. Then he goes to a hospital in Atlanta. He offers to pay with his credit card, but that is refused. There is a pleasant African-American man at the desk. He is told to wait. And so he, along with a couple of his Lost Boy friends wait in the waiting room for 12, 14, 16 hours in the hospital until somebody finally comes to deal with him. The result of the medical examination is unclear. He leaves the hospital, exhausted, having achieved nothing.
    But Valentino's story is well worth reading. The title of the book, "What is the What", comes from a story his father told so many years ago back in Marial Bai. It is concerned with the way the Dinka people think of themselves. Valentino tells us the story of his love for Tabitha, who was a "Lost Girl", and who was settled in Seattle. And then she was murdered by another one of the Lost Boys in a fit of jealousy. This devastates Valentino.
    I would recommend that you buy the book just as I have done, since all proceeds will go to a project Valentino has started for improving the lives of the people in the Bahr el Ghazal region of South Sudan.

The Game, by A. S. Byatt

    This book was not as fun to read as Byatt's Possession, or The Biographer's Tale. Much more serious, self-conscious. It was her second book, first published back in 1967. Looking up her entry in the Wikipedia, I see that she is the sister both of Margaret Drabble, the novelist, and Helen Langdon, who is an art historian. Drabble was the family name, before each of them got married. From what we read in the Wikipedia, Byatt does not get along with her novelist sister Margaret, each of them refusing to read the other's books. Fair enough. Perhaps this present book is part of the games she played as a child with her sister, each seeking to better the other. They certainly must have lived in a very competitive house.
    The two sisters in this book are named Julia and Cassandra. Julia is the sensible one. She writes stories about married women wishing that they were doing something other than being married. However in her real life, she is the modern, liberated woman, ignoring the family, writing her novels, appearing on television talk shows and sleeping with various television people. Cassandra on the other hand is an embittered, lonely, barren Oxford "don" in an Oxfordian college for women, teaching medieval literature. She is very much into the legend of King Arthur, in Malory's version. The "Game" in the book involved inventing Arthurian stories when they were young girls.
    When describing this, Byatt often mentions the "Pre-Raphaelite" artists of 19th century England, with their visions of medieval things. In particular the painters Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. I found this interesting since my grandparents owned Red House during the 1920s and 30s. Red House was built by William Morris back in 1860, and it contains various wall paintings and other associations with Rossetti and Burne-Jones. We visited it on a trip to England this past summer (when we also took in the Arthurian Tintagel in Cornwall). It is now a museum, administered by the English National Trust.
    But returning to the book, both sisters have "loved" in various ways a man named Simon. They grew up in Quaker families, and we have long descriptions of the tedious meetings of the Quaker "friends" in their dreary meeting house somewhere in the provincial England of the 1940s. Very sensibly, Julia found religion to be simply irrelevant. Yet she married Thor, a Norwegian Quaker who is more concerned with the problems of the world than with the problems of his own family. Cassandra, alone in her gloomy medieval Oxford college, with its chapel and civilized, hand-wringing ministers of the Church of England, descends into some kind of insanity. We become enveloped in complicated, literary dialogue.
    In contrast with all this, Simon has become a biologist and he has gone to South America to produce a television series on the lives of snakes. These days, television overflows with documentaries about animals eating one another. But I suppose back in the 1960s, these things were more of a novelty. In any case, all the literary types in the book go on for pages discussing the question of whether television, and particularly televised animal documentaries are the great art form of the Future. Simon returns to England and the two sisters, where he turns out to be strangely tongue-tied. In fact, he himself seems to be suffering from some sort of insanity, perhaps owing to the fact which we deduce indirectly from the story that he fed his cameraman, with whom he seemed to get along poorly, to the piranhas of the Amazon. They reduced the poor cameraman to bare bones within the space of only ten minutes. (Yet according to another book which I read not long ago, such visions of piranhas are also just gloomy myths.)
    So Julia decides to write a book about the obsession of her sister with all of these things, and with Simon. It causes a scandal in Cassandra's Oxford college and she commits suicide. The book ends with Julia telling Simon that she washes her hands of the whole affair.
    I wonder if Margaret Drabble has also refused to read this book - or if she has been angered by it. But it seems that it did Antonia Byatt good to have written it, since the subsequent books she wrote, at least those which I have read, are more fun to read than this one is.

Before She Met Me, by Julian Barnes

    The University closes down for a week or two at Christmas, so I went quickly into the library to get a couple of books to read over the holidays. Looking at the "B" section for "Byatt", my gaze wandered further along the shelf, and so I took out this book by Julian Barnes. After reading it, and thinking about writing my little review here, I looked up the name Julian Barnes in the Internet, and to my astonishment I find that he won the Booker Prize this year for a novel with the title "The Sense of an Ending". But then rather randomly finding a review of that book in the New York Times, I see that the reviewer wasn't particularly excited about the book.
    Similarly here, after reading A. S. Byatt's "The Game", this book by Julian Barnes strikes me as being rather light-weight. It is an amusing story which can be read almost in one sitting. Graham, the protagonist, is a professor of history at a university in London. He is married to Barbara and has a daughter, Alice, who is about 12 years old or so. Barbara really doesn't like Graham all that much. She is always complaining, finding fault with him, saying nasty little things to make him feel bad. But Graham, who seems to be a somewhat flabby, unexceptional character, lives on in this unsatisfactory state.
    Then he meets Ann, who is an attractive thirty something. Unlike Barbara, Ann actually seems to like Graham, and so he falls in love with her. Graham pulls himself together and leaves Barbara in order to live with Ann. Barbara takes all this very badly. She insists on an old-fashioned divorce based on the concept of guilt. Visiting rights with Alice are as restricted as possible, and the accompanying interactions with Barbara are full of her bitterness.
    So Graham and Ann marry and are both extremely happy with one another. Much of life for them becomes reduced to the basic level of sexual intercourse, devoid of any feelings of procreation.
    Before she met Graham, Ann had been a minor actress in various obscure movies. Graham asks Ann if she had slept with one of the actors who had been in one of her movies which he happened to have seen. She is very open with him and is happy to tell him about all of her affairs previous to meeting Graham. And so Graham begins to become jealous of all the men Ann knew in her earlier life. He becomes totally consumed by this idea, having sleepless nights, nightmares, secretly traveling to cinemas around London to see these old movies of Ann, and to hate all the male actors on the screen. It is an obsession, a madness.
    He seeks the advice of his old friend, Jack, a novelist. In the end he convinces himself that Jack also slept with Ann, is even now sleeping with her, and so he takes a knife and stabs Jack to death. Then he kills himself using what I understand is the traditional Japanese female method of committing hara-kiri, or seppuku, namely slitting his own throat with the knife.
    I suppose that amongst some peoples even today the idea lives on that at marriage a woman should be a virgin. Yet amongst those same peoples, no value is placed on the virginity of the man. Such ideas can lead to disgusting displays of violence, disfigurement, and what have you. An unpleasant subject which, in particular, various Arabian peoples might do well to think about.
    Despite this, Julian Barnes has a pleasant, smooth style of writing which made large parts of the book easy, even amusing, to read.