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(2013)


Thomas Hardy:
     Tess of the d'Urbervilles
Oliver Buslau:
     Schatten über Sanssouci
Hans Joachim Schädlich:
     Sire, ich eile
John Julius Norwich:
     Byzantium
Hilary Mantel:
     Wolf Hall
Amin Maalouf:
     The Crusades Through Arab Eyes
Laurie Lee:
     A Moment of War
Tim Mackintosh-Smith:
     The Travels of Ibn Battutah
James M. Cain:
     The Postman Always Rings Twice
Oscar Wilde:
     The Picture of Dorian Gray
Peter Furtado (editor):
     Histories of Nations
Alexander Pushkin (James E. Falen: translator):
     Eugene Onegin
Nick Hornby:
     Fever Pitch
Haruki Murakami:
     1Q84
Thomas Hoover:
     Syndrome
Iain Banks:
     Stonemouth
Keith Ridgway:
     Hawthorn & Child
Hari Kunzru:
     Gods Without Men
Robert Penn Warren:
     All the King's Men
Thomas Hoover:
     The Moghul
Jane Austen:
     Persuasion
Thomas Hoover:
     Zen Culture
Franz Kafka:
     Amerika
Mary Shelley:
     Frankenstein
Oliver Sacks:
     The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat
N.A.M. Roger:
     The Wooden World
Simon Singh:
     Fermat's Last Theorem
J.K. Rowling:
     The Casual Vacancy
Robert Galbraith:
     The Cuckoo's Calling
Iris Murdoch:
     The Sea, The Sea
Richard Dawkins:
     The Blind Watchmaker
Joe Simpson:
     Touching the Void
Edward Whymper:
     Travels Amongst the Great Andes of the Equator
William Boyd:
     Waiting for Sunrise
Rachel Joyce:
     The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Shlomo Sand:
     The Invention of the Jewish People
Bryce Zabel:
     Surrounded by Enemies
Thomas Hardy:
     The Woodlanders
Maggie O'Farrell:
     Instructions for a Heatwave
William Boyd:
     Solo
Sophie Hannah:
     The Carrier
Khaled Hosseini:
     And the Mountains Echoed
Robert Louis Stevenson:
     Catriona
David Nicholls:
     One Day

Tess of the d'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy

     This is another one of those melodramatic books by Thomas Hardy. The Wikipedia article which I have linked to here gives a detailed account of the plot of the story. Tess - whose real name we learn is Teresa - is a milkmaid in the 19th century English countryside. But she is apparently a direct descendent of some aristocrat in the time of the Norman conquest of England.
    Well, at a conservative guess, I suppose there would have been at least 30 generations of her family between the year 1066 and 1870 or so. Thus, assuming no duplications, she would have had more than 2 to the 30th power, that is more than 1,073,741,824 different ancestors in 1066. Of course that is impossible, since there were fewer than a billion people in the world then. But it shows that if we go back 30 generations then we are almost certainly related to everybody else, and we are descended from almost everybody who was alive in those days. For Tess's father, all of that didn't count. He considered himself to be superior owing to the fact that he was descended exclusively through the male line to that particular ancestor. However it is surely the case that tracing one's ancestry back through the male line involves a great deal of uncertainty. It is only now, in an age when the biological father of a child can be determined by means of DNA comparisons, that the male ancestry can be confirmed. Much more reliable is the female line of inheritance. But in Victorian England only the male line counted, and this despite the fact that the monarch was a female. And so the theme of Hardy's story is this domination of society by men.
    The poor, young, innocent Tess is sent off by her impoverished family to ingratiate herself with a rich family which had falsely assumed the name of d'Urberville. She is raped by the arrogant son Alec. Or perhaps it is not really rape at all. Hardy was unable to give us the details of this episode, since otherwise his book would never have been published in Victorian England. In any event, Tess becomes pregnant, flees back to her family, bears a sickly child which dies in infancy, and so decides to carry on with life, having learned a lesson about the pitfalls of female existence. She travels elsewhere to milk the cows there.
    Another milker in this new phase of her life is Angel Clare, a man with a strange name who is considered to be an angelic figure by all the female milkers of the place, including Tess. His attraction is increased by the circumstance that he is not just a simple farm laborer, but rather he has money behind him, and he is only taking part in the milking in order to learn the trade with the object of buying a large farm for himself some time in the future. And so he selects Tess to be his wife and future farmyard partner. But unfortunately, he turns out to be more of the devilish than the angelic sort.
    On their wedding night, before retiring to bed, they decide to confess to one another their sins. Angel informs Tess that he is not a virgin, and that he has dealt badly with a former girlfriend. He says this with a laugh to show Tess that she is free to confess her sins as well. And so she tells him that she is also no virgin. The horrible Angel then storms out the door into the night, declaring that his life is now ruined, and so forth. Tess sinks into the depths of remorse and depression.
    Angel deserts Tess, going off to South America to spend a year sulking and leaving Tess destitute. But during this time, Alec keeps trying to approach Tess, telling her that he loves her completely. Yet she rejects him again and again. I wish that Hardy had been able to tell us more of the details of that first decisive encounter between Tess and Alec so that we could judge exactly what claim he might have had on the affections of Tess. Unfortunately though, she clings to the memory of the evil Angel, but in the end, through family pressure, she reluctantly gets together with Alec. In the final part of the book, Angel returns to reclaim Tess. And in a fit of false emotion, Tess stabs Alec to death. She then runs off through the woods and fields of rural England with Angel to escape the police. In the middle of the night they happen to bump into Stonehenge, and Tess lies down to sleep on a stone - the "sacrificial stone". The following morning, policemen arrive from all directions and take her away to be hanged. In the final scene of the book, the unfaithful Angel is pictured walking hand in hand with Tess's young sister, up a hill and disappearing into the bushes where, we imagine, the next generation of the family is about to be created. But before this, they look down upon the town containing the prison where poor Tess is being held. A black flag is raised on the tower of the prison to denote the fact that Tess has just now died on the gallows.

    So what are we to make of such a brutal story as this? According to the Wikipedia article, various students of literature have imagined that Tess is supposed to symbolize certain mythical figures, or characters. For example, she is the Goddess of Nature and Fertility, whose praises were sung by the ancient Lucretius, sacrificed to the brutality of the Mechanical Age. Or something. But surely it is simpler to just say that much of that which we associate with "Victorian morality" was evil, and thankfully this novel of Thomas Hardy may have contributed towards overcoming such evils.

Schatten über Sanssouci, by Oliver Buslau

     If you take part in a course conducted by one of the famous contemporary professors of the baroque flute then you will soon discover that much of the discussion concerns Frederick the Great, and his music master, Johann Joachim Quantz. This is due to the fact that in 1752 Quantz published his famous treatise "Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen". There was a translation into English, published in 1780 in London, a scanned version of which can be downloaded in a rather large pdf file here. In addition, there is the famous portrait of Frederick, playing his flute, accompanied by his musicians - in particular Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach on the harpsichord, and Quantz standing off to the right in a posture of dignified humility. This picture cannot lay much claim to authenticity since it was painted in 1850-52, that is a century after the fact. Nevertheless, the posture of the king is thought to represent an excellent example which the modern student of the flute is encouraged to follow. But to be quite honest, when I look at the king's legs in this picture it seems to me that his bent-knee posture would be more suitable to horse riding than to flute playing. The only portrait which was actually painted from life shows a much more modest king. It is difficult to imagine him riding in the midst of his armies, in the thick of the action, exposing himself to danger. And I can imagine that when playing the flute in his palace at Sanssouci he did not assume the dominating pose represented in that 19th century portrait. After all, Quantz was the greatest flutist of the baroque period, which was the time when the greatest music for the flute was composed. Every afternoon - at least when he was at home in Sanssouci and not in the middle of a military campaign - he played privately with his musicians and with Quantz. What a wonderful experience it must have been for him, a mere amateur, to be able to play along with such people whenever he wished. Such a situation, such luxury, would be unimaginable today, even for the richest people in the world. And every afternoon he would be able to intimately experience the huge gulf between his own modest musical abilities and those of his musicians. For this reason he only played privately, at most allowing only a few invited guests. There is a famous description of such a concert by the Englishman Charles Burney.
    This book, whose title could be translated as "Shadow over Sanssouci", is a kind of historical novel and detective story. It is really absurdly fanciful, but still it was fun to read. The idea of the story is that agents of Maria Theresa, the Empress of Austria and enemy of Frederick, were smuggling information out of Potsdam, Frederick's base near Berlin, using coded messages.
    In those days, people used the system of "autokey ciphers". The weakness of such a system was that an initial word, or sequence of letters, must be sent in order to decipher the message. One ingenious idea, developed by Duke August the Younger of Brunswick-Lüneburg, was to encode this initial word within a piece of music which people would simply play without suspecting that it had anything to do with espionage. And so the story develops, with Quantz becoming involved in complicated intrigues, falsely accused of indulging in such things. The famous episode, where the great Johann Sebastian Bach visits Sanssouci and is given the complicated King's Theme, where he tries to improvise a six part fugue, plays a big role in the story. But this becomes rather far-fetched.
    We in the modern world consider J.S. Bach to be the greatest musician who ever lived, towering above his contemporaries, and indeed above everything that came subsequently. The Musical Offering, the Christmas Oratorium, the Mass in B minor, the Sonata in E major - BWV 1035. We perceive this music as being something of almost transcendental depth and beauty. But for Frederick and for almost all musicians and commentators on music in the 18th century, Johann Sebastian Bach was at most a relatively obscure musician whose mistake it was to write in an overly complicated style.
    The story of this book was interesting as far as it describes the military atmosphere of Potsdam under Frederick the Great. As with East Germany under the communists, Potsdam was surrounded by a high wall whose function was not to keep an attacking army away. Rather its function was to keep the soldiers - and I suppose many of the other people as well - from escaping to the outside world. And so the town must have been like a prison with the soldiers on guard constantly shouting at each other and at other people on the street. Walking the streets at night was illegal; anyone caught out would be thrown into jail. The soldiers would all assemble at some unearthly hour in the morning for their drill, with loud shouts, drums, pipes, church bells. Waking the whole town. How could Quantz have put up with it? He stayed in Potsdam from the time Frederick became king in 1741 until his own death in 1773.

Sire, ich eile, by Hans Joachim Schädlich

     This was another Christmas present concerning Frederick the Great. It is a short book, describing the messy business of the relations between the French philosopher Voltaire and the Prussian King. Although it is called a "novelle", it consists for the most part of quotations from the letters of the two characters, with some dialogue thrown in between.
    I hadn't really thought very much about Voltaire before. The whole idea of "philosophy" in the abstract strikes me as nothing but a great waste of time. I do remember reading Voltaire's "J'accuse" years ago. That certainly was not abstract philosophy. And reading through this book, I see that Voltaire was far removed from the somewhat hopeless characters who seem to inhabit the philosophy faculties of today's universities. He became rich through various shady deals, swindling people out of their money. And also Frederick, though playing the role of a fine French gentleman, was in fact a brutal and successful player in the game of warfare.
    At first, far apart, they wrote each other flowery letters of mutual admiration. Voltaire then took up residence in Frederick's palace at Sanssuci in 1750, and soon they became disgusted with one another. Voltaire fled to Switzerland, since hardly any other country in Europe would have him.

Byzantium, by John Julius Norwich

     For the last thirty years or more I have been accumulating these books which are produced by the Folio Society. In order to become a "member", you simply have to order at least four of their books. The books really are very nicely made: high quality paper, properly bound, interesting illustrations. Then if, next year, you can't be bothered to continue being a member, there is literally nothing to do. Just don't order a further four books. That's the end of it. And if the year after that you think that they have come up with some interesting new books, then you can again order four books and again become a "member" for that year.
    Somehow I always seem to think that there are still lots of interesting things, and so I eventually order my quota of new books each year. But in order to encourage people to continue being "members", the Folio Society offers various extra books, or sets of books for "free" if you renew your membership. Thus, in fact, rather than getting only four books, you get 7 or 8 for the price of 4. Looking at my invoice for this year, I see that it has cost me £134.47 this time. This is really hardly more than the cost of somewhat better quality paperbacks which are still just glued together on the back so that they break apart if you try to lay them out flat on the table.
    Well, of the 10 or so different sets offered as possible free books this year, I thought this history of Byzantium might be interesting. A set of three volumes of about 400 pages each. Years ago I did read through all of Gibbon's famous work: "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", which was first published in the 18th century. I enjoyed that despite its length - I suppose many thousands of pages. Lots of footnotes. But Edward Gibbon had a wonderful sense of humor so that all this heavy stuff often produced a smile. Gibbon relied on various classical sources which he must have read in the original Latin, Greek, or Hebrew. He often gives us his opinion of the reliability, or lack of it, of those sources. Of course the whole story is one of a huge succession of emperors, kings, and what have you, being incredibly corrupt, brutal, evil. These are the things that were of interest to the chroniclers back then. But Gibbon also took the trouble to expand his work with the occasional chapter describing things which were of interest to the common people back then. How did the tax system work? What was life like on a large estate? What were the origins of Islam, and what motivated the Arabs in their efforts to take over the world?
    Gibbon's work was so vast that after finishing it, I am sure that I only had a vague recollection of the countless emperors who assassinated one another down through the ages, and the circumstances of their horrible deaths. So when seeing that the Folio Society had now come out with a new set of books on Byzantium, I thought that it would be interesting. After all, modern scholarship has moved on from the style of Gibbon in the Age of Enlightenment of the 18th century. People are no longer simply interested in the tedious list of emperors and their hideous deeds. What was life really like during those thousand years that the Byzantine Empire existed?
    So after my package of new books arrived a week or two ago, I started off on volume 1 of this history of Byzantium. I have now reached page 375, and I am extremely disappointed! Where is the modern scholarship? This book does nothing more than repeat the enumeration of the various emperors and their deeds, covering the same ground that Gibbon covered 250 years ago. He often quotes Gibbon. In fact there is much less than Gibbon. The author, John Julius Norwich, far from giving us new scholarship, simply leaves out everything which is not concerned with those tedious emperors. For example, he skips over the rise of Islam with a few ignorant remarks. What a disappointment! These books are hardly worth the (high quality) paper they are printed on. What has become of the Folio Society? Why are they printing such rubbish in such beautifully made books? I should have looked for a review such as this before ordering this set.
    Thinking about it, I googled the name of the author and found this page in the Wikipedia. So we see that John Julius Norwich is, in fact, "Viscount Norwich", an English aristocrat. He is not a historian. Instead he was a diplomat, and then a TV and radio personality. He hosted the humorous radio quiz program "My Word!" for four years. But also he presented lots of those BBC television documentaries. So he must be a good talker. An amateur historian. Upper Class British accent. Snobby.
    I think it would be a shame if the Folio Society became closely attached to these BBC types. The reputation of the BBC has suffered in recent years through a number of scandals. Although I do keep clicking into the BBC website for a quick view of the news, I often read their articles with a great deal of skepticism.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

     I wasn't able to finish this one either. It was too long! I did get to page 350 or so of this paperback edition, which was about half way through to the end of the thing. But the printing is small, on small sheets of cheap paper so that the text curves around into the glued back of the book, making me try to open it further to get a better view, with the danger of cracking the glue on the back. And so the small, curved printing was a strain on the eyes. Somebody once told me that the cost of producing these paperbacks is mainly determined by the cost of buying the paper. All the rest is done automatically with big paperback-making machines which churn them out in huge numbers. So obviously the publishers decided to compensate for the huge number of pages in this book by making them as small as possible.
    If it was a great book, then maybe I could have put up with all this, but, despite the fact that it was the winner of the Booker Prize a couple of years ago, I just got bored with it. It is another one of these Henry the Eighth sagas. This time centered on the figure of Thomas Cromwell who, of course, dominated the politics of England back then. The story starts off with the young Thomas being beaten half to death, lying on the ground, kicked half-unconscious by his brutal father, who was a blacksmith. This scene is described in a breathless style, with dialogue which perhaps takes place, or perhaps is imagined. A disjointed style, suggesting helpless hysteria. The reader is overwhelmed with incoherent bursts of thought, jumping back and forth. I suppose the idea of the author was to convey the feeling that people in those days were caught up in this hysteria, thus making calm, sensible thought impossible. But then this is contradicted by the fact that the hero of the book, Thomas Cromwell, was the master of many different languages, the intricacies of law, and apparently he had also found the time and the peace of mind to memorize the entire New Testament of the bible. (This encompasses 230 closely printed pages with tiny type in the copy of the Bible which I bought, out of curiosity, from the Australian Bible Society for less than the cost of the high quality - but extremely thin - paper it is printed on, almost 40 years ago.) But still, the author, Hilary Mantel goes on and on in this hectic style for page after page, developing the story.
    The problem with an historical novel such as this is that we know how things turn out. You just need to look it up in the Wikipedia, which I have linked to above. So we see that Thomas Cromwell survived until the year 1540, when he was 55 years old. His mistake at that stage was to get Henry the Eighth hooked up with Anne of Cleves. In those days, without all this Internet stuff, it was difficult for Henry to get a good picture of his prospective wives without seeing them in the flesh. Unfortunately Anne of Cleves was over in Germany or something, and so he had the painter Hans Holbein the Younger sent over to paint her portrait. She doesn't strike me as being so very attractive there, but apparently she was much less attractive in reality. Thus Henry didn't consummate the marriage, and in order to express his anger, he had Thomas Cromwell executed. I suppose the book must end on page 700 or something with a firework of disjointed, hysterical verbiage, describing this situation.
    At the point where I gave up, Henry had gotten rid of poor old Cardinal Wolsey and Cromwell had been elevated to high office. But the whole business with Ann Boleyn was still in limbo. According to the story of the book, although Henry had already coupled with Ann's older sister Mary - apparently producing a number of offspring, even of the male variety - Henry decided to have a go at Ann as well. But she was holding out, telling him: NO SEX BEFORE MARRIAGE!, getting him into a state of nervous anticipation. Well, OK. But somehow, this seems to me to be a different story than was told in countless other of these books and films. And from the portraits, it seems to me that neither Ann, nor her sister Mary were particularly beautiful women. The next wife of Henry, Jane Seymour, was downright ugly.
    As I think I wrote somewhere here a few years ago, the most striking thing to see if you take the tour through the Tower of London is the armor of Henry the Eighth. It's incredibly massive. He must have been a tremendously fat man. I imagine he had trouble standing up, supporting all his layers of fat together with the heavy armor. And then sticking out between the legs of the armor is a huge, bulbous projection for holding Henry's reproductive organ. What did people think in those days? Could it be that these ugly women Henry married were the only ones who were not revolted by such displays?
    And in any case, the whole story of Henry the Eighth seems to me to be absurd. After all, the great tradition - from the Emperor Constantine, down through the ages - was that kings killed off all the male members of their families in order not to be killed by them instead. Why did Henry, who apparently had numbers of illegitimate male offspring, become so obsessed with the idea of having an official, church endorsed, male heir? Surely this obsession of his, apparently a result of some sort of strange religious fanaticism, or perhaps it was his increasing madness, thought by some to be due to syphilis, has nothing at all to do with some sort of imaginary strategy of Ann Boleyn, described in this book. In fact the book seemed to me to become more and more absurd, the further I read. And so I didn't finish it. But I know how the story ends anyway.

The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, by Amin Maalouf

     When George W. Bush began his wars of terrorism over 10 years ago, he referred to it as being some kind of "crusade". In the Introduction to this book it is said that George W. Bush's guide to religion was Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, who devoted his life to a television "Crusade for Christ". Perhaps Billy Graham imagined that his "crusade" was a fight against immoral behavior in modern society - or something. But Franklin Graham was quite clear about these things. He said that the God of Islam is different from the God of Christ. According to him, Islam is "a very evil and wicked religion".
    One suspects that neither George W. Bush nor Franklin Graham were familiar with the history of the crusades. For example, Edward Gibbon devotes a couple of chapters to this theme. And I've read a number of other books on the subject. There have also been television documentaries. The impression one gets is of unimaginable hardships, slaughter, blood flowing everywhere. Somehow those crusaders seemed to think that Jerusalem was paradise, heaven. And in order to get there and to possess it, even the worst evils were acceptable. When the crusaders entered Jerusalem in 1099 they rampaged through the place, killing or enslaving everybody, including the Christians and Jews who happened to be living there. They destroyed much of the city, grabbing anything of value. It was one of the worst examples of senseless destruction and cruelty that history has to offer.
    Contrast this with the behavior of the caliph Umar, who took Jerusalem from the Byzantines during the initial stages of Islamic expansion in the year 638. He told the people that he would respect their lives and property. Then he asked the Christian patriarch to take him on a tour of the Christian holy places. When the time for Islamic prayer came, he happened to be in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The patriarch invited him to pray right there, but he demurred, saying that if he did so, then his followers might try to convert the church into a mosque to celebrate the event. Therefore he went outside to pray, and indeed, the "Mosque of Umar" was erected on that spot. Similarly, when Saladin eventually conquered the Frankish army and entered Jerusalem in 1187, he respected the life and property of the inhabitants and their freedom to go about their various religions.
    It is only after reading this book, which relies on various contemporary Arab chroniclers, that the history of the crusades became a coherent whole for me. After all, if a country is being attacked by invaders from some distant lands, then the natives of that country experience the whole thing in its entirety, while the invaders only experience themselves and the violence they commit.
    The situation at the time of the initial wave of crusaders was that the Middle East was ruled by the Seljuk Turks. Each town had its own little king, and these kings were all related to one another. Rather than displaying brotherly love, they were at each others throats, trying to kill one another, assembling small armies to try and invade and capture the neighboring town. Thus when the crusaders first appeared they were thought to be nothing more than a distraction from the serious business of fighting the neighbors. Various of the rulers allied themselves with the crusaders in order to help them in their respective battles. But as wave after wave of Frankish invaders arrived, they were able to establish a colony named "Outremer" - which can be translated as "overseas" in Medieval French - which lasted for about a hundred years.
    The Arab chroniclers describe with revulsion the Frankish settlers. Their total lack of hygiene. Their illiterate ignorance. Their cruel and arbitrary system of justice. It must have been somewhat like the movie Mad Max. If two of the settlers came into conflict with one another then they were placed in a ring to fight to the death. Justice was determined by the sword. But gradually, after establishing themselves in Outremer, the people became more civilized and they often joined forces with the Arabs in fighting off the new waves of primitive, destructive crusaders coming from France. In fact it is a plausible thesis that the civilizing influence of the peoples of the Middle East led to the renaissance in Italy, and thus to the awakening of Europe from the barbaric Middle Ages.

A Moment of War, by Laurie Lee

     Laurie Lee wrote a trilogy of books describing the things he did as a young man. The three books were published together under the title "Red Sky at Sunrise" which I found in the library. I had already read the first two of the books years ago. This one describes his adventure during the Spanish Civil War.
    The second book of the trilogy was "As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning". He leaves home in the rural England of the 1930s depression, penniless, supporting himself by playing his violin on street corners. After working for a time as a laborer, he gathered his pennies together and bought a ticket to Spain, a country whose language he didn't speak. And so he walked about in Spain, playing his music on the streets and in the bars, ending up on the Costa del Sol and the start of the Civil War. At the end of that book, a British gunboat appeared off the beach and Laurie Lee was taken aboard and returned to England. But there life seemed to him to be pointless so he decided to join the International Brigade and fight in the war on the Republican side against the Spanish Fascists under Franco. The second book of the trilogy thus ends with the author climbing across the Pyrenees in the snows of winter, nearly freezing to death, entering Spain.
    The present book takes up the story from there. He is guided down from the mountains and arrives shivering and wet in a primitive farmhouse where he sits near the fire, with the locals staring at him. They give him something to eat and he sleeps overnight. The next day he is carted away to a town where he is accused of being a spy, is thrown into a small, cold room in a cellar, and forgotten for a couple of days. An interrogator eventually appears, and although he is friendly, still he has Laurie Lee taken to a small hole in the ground with a locked trap-door. So the author spends the next two weeks in total darkness, hardly able to move. Another young man is also thrown into the hole. He is unable to see him, but at least his body heat provides some warmth in this cold winter. The young man was trying to escape from the war by climbing over the mountains, out into France. A deserter. After a week or so he is pulled out of the hole, and soon afterwards Laurie Lee hears the explosion of a gun. The execution.
    Obviously this was not the best way to go about joining the International Brigade! Ernest Hemingway, and all those other literary types who were looking for the high adventure of war, were more sensible than Laurie Lee. The proper way to take part in that adventure was to go down to the local offices of the Communist Party - in London, or New York, or Moscow, or wherever else you were coming from - and officially enlist. Then you were officially shipped over to Spain, welcomed by the officials of the Spanish Communist Party, and sent into battle, with a high probability of being killed. I suppose Ernest Hemingway must have told them that he was a pacifist, despite all appearances to the contrary, since he was given the job of driving ambulances.
    Eventually Laurie Lee was pulled out of the dark hole, expecting to meet his fate. But for some reason he was not shot; instead was shipped along to Figueres, where a ragged bunch of men who had joined up officially were gathering. After days of inactivity they were shipped further down the coast to Tarragona. The whole country was devastated. It was cold. The primitive, creaking train took hours and hours to get almost nowhere. Eventually, exhausted, they arrived. A primitive, ragged brass band welcomed them at the station and they were marched to their barracks. But before entering, they had to stand in the cold, in formation, at attention. Laurie Lee's name was called out and he was taken away for further interrogation while the others went to the barrack. More days in a small, cold cell. It was decided to go ahead and shoot him. But at the last moment he was recognized by somebody, and so his life was spared - for the time being at least. More weeks of doing nothing. An intimate encounter with a young teenaged girl he had met before. Then he was himself assigned to the secret police squadron of the International Brigade. Looking for traitors. A desolate truck ride to Madrid, and a short-wave radio broadcast to America where he played his violin. Suddenly he was shipped off to the front with another young fellow who had become caught up in this mess. They were dumped in a barn. The nearby town was being bombarded with all the might of Fascist Europe. His companion was killed. He stumbled away in the cold slush and snow, hiding for days in a covered ditch with a small group of Republican soldiers. Suddenly enemy soldiers appeared. A quick, brutal scuffle. He had killed a man, and other dead and wounded lay about. He was returned to Tarragona, full of remorse. Everything was hopeless. The Cause was lost. He was told that he would be sent back to England where he could write propaganda for the Cause, thus contributing more than he was doing here. A cold, dangerous nighttime ride in a truck to Barcelona. He was told that the best thing would be to present himself at the police station to obtain his exit papers. But the police simply put him into a cell in a big city prison and forgot him. Cold. No food. A nun appeared each day to give him a thin sandwich. Nothing more. Weeks of this. Nothing. Would he spend the rest of his life like this? Forgotten in a Spanish prison? Suddenly a man appeared, unlocked the door to the cell and led him out. By chance, one of the bigwigs of the English Communist Party happened to be visiting Barcelona and he had had dinner with the Chief of Police who happened to mention that they were holding an Englishman in the prison. And so he was sent by train over the border into France, back into the real world, and the next day he was back in cold, drizzling London.
    A depressing story which I have read on a cold, dark, gray, winter's day. I am turning up the heating in the house. Maybe I'll light a nice warm fire in the fireplace. What was the moral of the story? Avoid lost causes!

The Travels of Ibn Battutah, by Tim Mackintosh-Smith

     Tim Mackintosh-Smith didn't write this. Instead he edited and translated the book of Ibn Battutah, who was undoubtedly the greatest traveler of the late middle ages. Battutah's travels took place in the years 1325-1354. It is a natural idea to compare him with Marco Polo, who traveled during the period 1271-1295. We can compare the route of Marco Polo to that of Ibn Battutah, shown in three maps at the bottom of this page. We see that Battutah covered about three times the distance of Marco Polo. (But of course Marco Polo claimed to have been employed as an envoy of the Emperor of China for many years, presumably involving much travel about China, which he didn't include in his memoirs.) Battutah describes clearly the towns along his route, allowing the modern geographer to follow the travels with greater accuracy than is the case with Marco Polo. And of course the great difference between those two figures is that Battutah followed the Islamic religion, while Polo was a Christian.
    Back in those days, Islam covered a far greater region of the earth than did Christianity. And thus Marco Polo was, of necessity, much more open-minded in his observations than was Ibn Battutah, who was able to travel for such vast distances almost exclusively in lands where Islam was the dominant element of society. It was only during a short visit to Constantinople, and a slightly more extended visit to China, that he ventured into the lands of the "infidel". On both occasions he felt very uncomfortable and left as quickly as possible. For a time he had high office under the Emperor of India. But he describes various battles against the infidels there, so obviously the Islamic forces, while having conquered India, hadn't established a position of true dominance.
    It wasn't particularly clear to me what this Ibn Battutah was doing during all these travels. He continually tells us that this or that person, or even whole groups of people, have learned the entire text of the Qur'an by heart. A couple of years ago, out of curiosity, I did get a copy of the book (in English, of course). It is not printed on ultra-thin paper, as is my copy of the King James Bible. Thus it is 5 cm. thick and weighs in at 1.7 kg. I certainly cannot claim to have read through the whole thing, but at least I can appreciate the prodigious effort involved in accomplishing such a feat of memorization. And so, as Ibn Battutah travels from town to town in his travels, he goes from Mosque to Mosque and describes one person after another either reciting or reading out of the Holy Text.
    But how did he finance all of his travels if he was totally preoccupied with Mosques and readings of the Qur'an? At the start, in the year 1325, he seems to set off from his home town of Tangier on the pilgrimage to Mecca with only very modest financial means. And yet when he really gets going, on the way to India, he tells us about all the slave girls he has gathered about himself, all of his camels, horses and what have you, male slaves, bags of golden dinars, and so forth. How has he gotten so rich?
    After reading the book, it seems to me that he must have established himself as an Islamic scholar, and thus, owing to the fact that Islamic law is based on reading and interpreting the Qur'an, he must have become recognized as a famous lawyer, or judge. After all, there is always lots of money in the law, isn't there? Rich people try to get their way by throwing their money at rapacious lawyers. But the thing that bothered me was how Ibn Battutah goes on and on about his high moral principles, and how he passes judgement on other people. Yet his own life seems to have been lived in a state of moral depravity.
    After all, the (undoubtedly warped) impression we have is that Islamic law is primarily concerned with the sanctity of marriage (unfaithful spouses are to be stoned to death!) and of property (thieves have their hands chopped off!). Yet Ibn Battutah tells us how pleasant it is to travel for weeks in a caravan in your own wagon, enclosed in a gauze-like covering, perhaps with slits in it so you can see what is happening outside, while inside you are protected in your privacy. He tells us that while hiding behind these coverings he has about him numbers of his own personal slave girls accompanying him in the wagon. Occasionally he also tells us that the products of his debaucheries do not survive their births. We surmise that the majority are dumped into orphanages, or whatever. He also accumulates various wives, who are not slave girls, but then has no trouble getting rid of them when he travels onward. He doesn't give us his legal opinion on the validity of such practices in Islamic law, but in particular he does go on at length about the delights of the wives and slave girls which he enjoyed during his stay in the Maldives. As far as thievery is concerned, perhaps most people would agree that the legal profession is, in itself, a kind of thievery. But Ibn Battutah often tells us about the huge "debts" he accumulates which may, or may not have been paid off by the respective king or emperor he happened to be serving at various stages of his travels.
    So I am afraid that the impression I gained was that the famous traveler was simply an unpleasant, self-righteous hypocrite. This book served to reinforce the all too common - but hopefully false - view that many Europeans have of Islam. Namely that it is a system of corruption dominated by men, where women are forced to suffer.

The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain

     Tough, 1930s talk in abbreviated sentences. It's a short little story in the style of Raymond Chandler. Yet Chandler, who was really rather prudish, hated the author. If, as it is sometimes said, American society is characterized by sex and violence, then Chandler concentrated exclusively on the violent side of life. In this book the hero - or rather the protagonist, Frank Chambers - is really a sentimental soul. He falls madly in love with Cora, the wife of Nick, the owner of a gas station in a suburb of LA.
    So the problem is to get rid of Nick. We are told that although he is a nice guy, extremely friendly with Frank, still Nick is an unpleasant, greasy immigrant from Greece. Frank and Cora make a bit of a mess of the murder. Although I didn't see the 1981 movie, staring Jack Nicholson, I can hardly imagine that it reflects the calm, clear mood of the book. Instead we would like Lieutenant Columbo to appear and solve the crime for us. Unfortunately, the LA of the 1930s was not Lieutenant Columbo's LA of 50 years later. The DA is a cynical man, setting up Frank against Cora. But in a twist of the plot, Frank engages an even smarter lawyer who twists justice into nonsense. Frank and Cora are free. Yet things do not turn out happily. Cora dies in a real accident, but Frank is this time falsely framed for murder, and in the last sentence of the book, Frank asks the reader to send prayers that after he is hanged he will rejoin his beloved Cora in the next world.
    I am astonished that such a sentimental story as this caused such a scandal in the USA back in the 30s. A false prudery.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

     In a nutshell, the story is that a "beautiful" young man, Dorian Gray, has his picture painted by an artist in Victorian London. He then leads a life of degenerate debauchery. The usual result of such a life is that the body also becomes degenerate, turning beauty into ugliness. But in the story, Dorian Gray remains young and beautiful while his portrait, which he hides up in the attic of his London mansion, progressively changes, gradually portraying an ugly, debauched person. At the end of the story he can no longer stand looking at the horrible portrait, and so he takes a knife, slicing it to pieces. But at that instant, accompanied by loud screams, the portrait returns to its initial, beautiful, pristine state, and Dorian Gray is transformed into an ugly, repulsive old man.
    This is a kind of Gothic horror story. Also rather like Robert Louis Stevenson's "Doctor Jeckell and Mister Hyde". Stevenson was writing during the Victorian period so that he was only able to describe in very vague, indirect terms the things which Mr. Hyde was supposed to be doing. Similarly Oscar Wilde, writing in 1890, leaves much to the reader's imagination. The only things we are actually told are:
  1. Dorian Gray, a member of the "high society" of London, takes a fancy to a Shakespearean actress, leading her to believe that he will marry her. But following a bad acting performance on her part, he breaks off the relationship. Subsequently she commits suicide.
  2. He invites the artist who painted his portrait up to the attic to view what is happening. On a sudden impulse, and out of disgust, he murders the artist.
    Well, surely Point 1 was just par for the course in cynical, Victorian London. As far as Point 2 is concerned, murder is indeed illegal, but it is hardly to be compared with the example of Jack the Ripper, as far as horror is concerned. For the rest, Oscar Wilde goes on for page after tedious page in the middle of the book, quoting numerous examples in antiquity, or in classical literature, showing that people do not normally live according to the straight-laced, rigid moral framework of Victorian England. Fair enough. - And how banal -
    Of course we all know that Oscar Wilde was homosexual; that this was illegal in Victorian England; and that he was subsequently imprisoned for his "crime". These days homosexuality is certainly no longer illegal. For example the Mayor of Berlin is homosexual, and he famously said that that is "good so". And the Foreign Minister of Germany is also homosexual. A year or two ago he married his partner.
    So the present book is concerned with Oscar Wilde coming to terms with the beauty of a young man in Victorian England, and the fact that in the London of those days, such people as he and his boyfriends were forced into an atmosphere of degenerate dissipation. But beyond that, I found the book to be unpleasant owing to the incessantly cynical dialogue which, I suppose, reflects the true situation of life as he found it in the "high society" of London back in those days. A constant, false banter; every sentence a joke.
    After all, the mega-rich of Victorian England owed their inherited riches to the torment of slaves in the West Indies, or to the exploitation of India, or peasants in the coal mines of Northern England. The evil which was the basis of those riches exceeded in all measure anything which Dorian Gray was able to achieve.
    Imagine what life must have been like for those people: Lord so and so, or Lady whatever. Or the Duke, Dutchess of something ridiculous. They were ugly people, physically ugly, made ugly by the depravity of their riches. Yet, as in the book, they had to constantly visit one another, telling one another how beautiful they were in convoluted, cynical jokes. It is no wonder that this led many of these people into a life of depraved degeneration.

Histories of Nations, edited by Peter Furtado

     This book consists of 28 short chapters, representing 28 different nations. Each of these chapters is a attempt by a contemporary historian of the respective nation to give a history of that nation in just 10 or 12 pages - with plenty of space left over for 6 or 8 photos, or other illustrations, in each chapter. An interesting exercise. But I see that Europe is over-represented with 12 chapters out of the 28. Or 14 if one is to argue (as their historians more or less do) that Russia and Turkey are also European. Africa is totally under-represented. Only Ghana gets a chapter in this book. On the other hand, North America is totally represented since all three nations: Canada, USA, and Mexico are included. And of course Australia, as a continent, is totally represented, since there is a chapter for Australia.
    Still, it seems to me to be a bit strange to have so many chapters devoted to the chaos here in Europe. Perhaps most people would say that the history of Europe is well-known. You can just read about it in all the countless history books which have been published down through the ages. And yet the striking thing when reading this book is that each of the 12 European historians tells a completely different story. It is astonishing how little common ground there is in the various national myths of Europe. And I suppose that if historians of some of the omitted nations, such as Switzerland, Serbia, Denmark, and so forth, were to be allowed to have their says, then we would have a whole further flock of incompatible myths. Each of these nations has its own separate language, and so it would seem that history becomes lost - or at least distorted beyond all recognition - in the translation from one language to another.
    The chapter on the United States, written by Peter Onuf, was interesting. As he shows, the myth of the United States is that it is supposed to be beyond history. History was concerned with all those European problems. But the USA is the "new world", where people are free to be themselves, having transcended history. Unfortunately though, history has a nasty habit of cropping up at awkward times, imposing itself upon people who want nothing to do with it. This gives us an explanation of why the USA seems to be continually invading one country after another, like a person with a can of insecticide, trying to spray away an irritating fly, but in this case trying to keep history at bay.
    I was surprised to read that India has almost no written ancient history. It seems that the Indians were more interested in poetry. But in contrast with this, China has a very ancient and complete historical record. The chapter on Turkey concludes with a quotation from another book about Turkey, saying "this book is about a people who do not exist".

Eugene Onegin, translated by James E. Falen

    For we non-Russians, I suppose the story of Eugene Onegin is best known through Tchaikovsky's opera. So I have linked here to the synopsis of the story in the website of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. But it seems that in Russia, Pushkin has the same sort of status as does Shakespeare (or at least the works which were published under the name "Shakespeare") in the English speaking world.
    This book is a kind of novel with a simple Russian love story. It was written in verse. The whole thing consists of 366 stanzas, each of which (with a couple of exceptions) being a poem of 14 lines. The rhyming scheme for each of these stanzas can be represented by the sequence "ababccddeffegg". In addition, the lines are "feminine" and "masculine" according to the scheme "fmfmffmmfmmfmm". A feminine line is such that the next to last syllable is stressed, while for a masculine line, the last syllable is stressed. Then finally the meter is iambic tetrameter. Whew! Complicated, isn't it?
    I'm not really a fan of poetry, but I am impressed by the fact that these poets are able to express comprehensible thoughts within such a rigid framework. On the other hand, I find the kind of poetry which isn't really poetry - since it doesn't follow all these rules - to be often much more profound. For example the poems of T. S. Eliot.
    Since Russian is incomprehensible to me, and I saw that this translation was being offered by the Folio Society, I thought it might be interesting to read it. According to the Introduction, Pushkin took years to write the whole thing, publishing it in serial form between 1825 and 1832. It must have been a prodigious effort for him to have been able to find combinations of words fitting into his scheme and yet still giving something which was not simply a monstrosity. And thus it is for me difficult to understand how this James E. Falen could have gone to the trouble of reproducing the story in the same number of stanzas, with the identical rhyming scheme, meter, and so forth, where each stanza approximates in meaning the original of Pushkin, and yet having it in the English language. And indeed, the story in this translation can be read reasonably smoothly. So I must take my hat off to him! Congratulations on a job well done.
    But whereas Pushkin has been rewarded for his tremendous feat of rhyming and rhythm with everlasting fame and adoration, the translator who has put an equal measure of effort into his work remains obscure.

Fever Pitch, by Nick Hornby

    This is a book about football. Real football, not the American game which is derived from Rugby and in which only occasionally does any player actually touch the "ball" (or rather the - more or less - ellipsoid) with his foot. When I was growing up in the United States I did have an average sort of knowledge of professional baseball, basketball and American "foot"ball. But in school I hated those team sports and only took part with the greatest reluctance. In those days I was one of the few people going out alone for cross-country runs along the roads. I can recall the occasional car stopping to tell me that it was crazy to run like that.
    Then in Australia I tried playing tennis, hardly becoming very good at it. But I became fascinated with watching cricket. Only once or twice did I try playing it with some other students. A couple of times I watched an international test match at the Sydney Cricket Ground. The speed and aggression of the bowling is breathtaking. And the strategy changes over time as the game develops from one day to the next. But now I have been living in Europe for the last 37 years, and so it is a natural thing to look at football.
    This book, "Fever Pitch" is apparently the true story of Nick Hornby's obsession with football, and in particular with his being a fanatical fan of Arsenal - the North London club. As you can see from the link, Arsenal has had a very successful history, never dropping out of the First Division. But just now, as I am writing this on a Wednesday afternoon, I am looking forward to watching the Champions League match between Bayern Munich and Arsenal which is due to take place this evening on television. The first leg was a couple of weeks ago in London, and Bayern demolished Arsenal with a 3-1 victory. So everybody expects Bayern to cruise comfortably into the quarter finals in tonight's match in Munich.
    Back in the late 70s and early 80s I often went to the football stadium here to watch the local team, Armenia Bielefeld. Back then they were playing near the bottom of the first division of German football. (But still, one very memorable weekend, Bielefeld actually beat Bayern Munich 4-0 in Munich!) A couple of us would often stand on the terraces along with the hard-core fans. A great atmosphere. People were very friendly. I remember one match at the end of the season when Hamburg - HSV - were the guests and Bielefeld was desperately playing to avoid relegation. And at the same time, Hamburg were about to be crowned German Champions. Kevin Keegan - an Englishman who is mentioned occasionally in Nick Hornby's book - was playing for Hamburg. Bielefeld's football stadium was a simple affair in those days. There was only seating on one side of the field; on the other side where we were standing, and at the ends, was just standing room. It was a warm, sunny day in May. The stand was constructed of wooden boards on tubular supports, rather like a temporary construction scaffold. We were packed closely together like vertical sardines - there were very many thousand spectators standing on that construction - and I began to wonder how much weight those supports could carry. At one point Bielefeld scored, and everybody jumped at once, accompanied by a tremendous roar. The fact that I am writing about this so many years in the future shows that the supports did hold!
    But then the local team was unable to keep playing at the top level. It oscillated for a time between the first and second divisions, and I lost interest. At the moment they are dumpling along in the 3rd division, and I am astonished to hear that despite this, an average of 10,000 people still keep coming to the home games. The stadium, which used to have the pleasantly alpine name of the "Alm", has now become a modern, fully enclosed stadium with seating everywhere, and with the commercialized name "SchücoArena". I have heard that it seats about 30,000, which is an embarrassment for a club which plays so badly. Those other obscure 3rd division teams must enjoy the spectacle of playing in such a large arena.
    So it is difficult for me to sympathize with the emotions Nick Hornby describes in his devotion to Arsenal. He is only interested in winning. And when Arsenal isn't winning then he falls into the depths of depression. He also describes the brutality of the English football fans around him. Many of them throw bananas at black players on the field, making loud grunting noises, supposedly imitating monkeys. Others shout anti-semitic slogans. And so forth. Here at the "Alm" I did once hear two fellows grunting, and it took me a while to understand what that was supposed to be about. But that was near the time I stopped going.
    Watching the occasional match on TV, I am impressed with the skill and the level of play in the modern game. It is a joy to watch the precise passing and the ball control in a team like Bayern. And what a wonderful thing it was to watch all the great players in the Spanish team at the last World Cup, and the European Cup which they won as well. Things change so quickly. Almost all of the names of the English football players of the 1970s and 80s which Hornby describes meant nothing to me. But I do know the names of some of the Arsenal players for tonight's game.
*******
    So now it is late at night and the game turned out to be a scrappy affair. Arsenal played the way Nick Hornby describes them. They had a very nicely played goal after only three minutes. In the second half Bayern seemed to dominate things, having many shots at the goal, but without success. Then with only four minutes to go, Arsenal was able to score from a corner. They needed another goal in order to make it past Bayern to the quarter finals of the Champions League, but that didn't happen. It wasn't a pleasant game to watch.

1Q84, by Haruki Murakami

    I've seen this book in the bookshop and in Amazon.com for the last couple of years, but the thought of its voluminous bulk - over 1000 pages - seemed too much. But on the other hand, I've read through numbers of his other books, and in the sum it must come to thousands of pages all together, so I suppose the bulkiness of this book is not really an objection.
    Since I am writing this review, I have actually read the book. It turned out to be a disappointment. 1000 pages is just too much for a single story. I didn't buy it. Instead I read it second - or third - hand in a German translation, rather than an English one. In order to economize, the German publishers saw fit to use a small typeface and to crowd the type right in close to the binding. In a paperback book as thick as this, the curvature of the pages into the binding gives a long valley down into the glue at the backbone, so it was necessary to press the pages down with force, and tilt the book into the light in order to read the thing. Not good for any real reading pleasure.
    Murakami writes in a way that keeps drawing you on from page to page, even beyond page 1000. Ever new angles, new developments of the story. But upon reaching the end, the disappointed reader finds that it still hasn't ended! At the beginning of the book it says that this is Part 1, and somewhere around page 500 it says this is Part 2. But then, having plodded all the way to the end of Part 2, we find that the whole thing is still a mystery. Lots of crazy things have happened, but we don't know why, or where they are supposed to be leading us. I briefly thought about buying Part 3 of the story, which is in a separate volume which you have to buy separately for another ten dollars or something. Just to find out how things turn out. But then I looked at the reviews of the Part 3 volume which normal people had written in Amazon.com. It consists of another 500 or600 pages, and the people who had waded through all of that wrote to say that the story didn't come to any sensible conclusion even after all those further pages!
    So I was disappointed.

Syndrome, by Thomas Hoover

    Clicking around Gutenberg.org, looking for something to read on the Kindle. The problem is that almost all the books there are very much dated. Best just to look for the classics. One way to browse their list of books is to look at the 100 most popular downloads in the last day, or week, or month, and I found that this one was at the top of the list. After downloading it, I was surprised to find that it is not an ancient story. In fact Thomas Hoover is very much alive, and this book was written just a few years ago. He has had various of his books published by real publishers, not the vanity press. But it is obvious that he has another life, independent of these book publishers, and so he is simply offering all of his books openly for everyone to download as they choose.
    It is an interesting story involving medical research. Stem cells to give you new life, cure disease, live on without aging. According to current thinking, the telomeres on the ends of the chromosomes shorten with every cell division. When you reach 80 or 90 years old, they are all gone and the cells in the body cannot sensibly divide any more. Death from old age. And yet! the body contains stem cells with a full set of telomeres. Even the bodies of old people. There is an enzyme in the body called telomerase reverse transcriptase which sticks a new set of telomeres onto the ends of chromosomes. So why doesn't it keep us young forever?
    Who knows? The chemistry of the body seems to me to be almost infinitely complicated and bewildering. And there is more to aging that just telomeres. The story in the book is that some medical genius sticks some extra telomerase reverse transcriptase into various people, and presto! they become healthy and young again. But this wonderful medical advance has some disastrous side-effects. It is all being carried out in a secret laboratory, buried in the back woods of northern New Jersey, controlled by an evil oligarch. Unfortunately this promising plot falls apart due to a whole chain of ridiculous coincidences, turning the whole thing into a mere parody of what the author intended. But still, it is freely available for downloading, and if one is prepared to imagine that some of these coincidences are not there then it is an amusing read.

Stonemouth, by Iain Banks

    The story has many parallels with Banks' earlier book, The Crow Road. A young fellow growing up in a small Scottish town, leaving it, and coming home to his memories. Lots of juvenile dialogue. It is a love story where the girl belongs to a rich, violent, tight-knit Scottish clan. The book was written just a couple of years ago, so it describes the contemporary world, rather than the 1980s world of Crow Road. The characters are continuously interacting with their mobile telephones, tablet computers, and all that modern paraphernalia.
    Iain Banks takes great pains to tell us in many repetitious passages throughout the book how he thinks that Apple products are superior to non-Apple products. The hero loses his iPhone, or rather it is thrown into the ocean from a bridge during a violent attack on the hero by the brothers of his girlfriend. Unfortunately there is no Apple store in the small Scottish town, and thus in order to continue keeping in touch with the world he must resort to purchasing for temporary use a "rubbish" phone, presumably something by Samsung, running the Android operating system. He laments the fact that this rubbish will be incapable of synchronizing with his iPad so that the information he will electronically collect in the next day or two will not be easily integrated into the assemblage of Apple products which he has back in his London flat. How tragic.
    Elsewhere here I have expounded on my experiences with Apple computers. I got an Apple 2 back in 1983 or so and a "fat Mac" with 500kB of memory in 1985. Back in those days I wasted many hours unsuccessfully trying to write a program in 68000 assembler language in order to get the SAC computer algebra system to work nicely on the Macintosh. Larry Siebenmann spent even more time programming a special set of shortcuts for writing TeX files on the Macintosh. But all that is long ago. Now all these expensive Apple things are bought by Iain Banks, and millions of other people like him. Who would have known that Apple would become the most highly valued company in the world? Don't we all wish that we could have had the good fortune to have invested in Apple shares back 10 or 15 years ago when they first came up with those clunky, gaudy iMacs? Then we would all be millionaires today! Raking in the profits to be gained by all the things sold in the iTunes shop. And think of all those with-it people, updating their iThings to the latest model every year or two.
    Oh well. Thinking of such things leads me to wonder where all the wealth comes from which Iain Banks describes in the Scottish town of the story. Whenever I visit England, it seems to me to be a great mystery how the people there live. The motorways surge with their Volvos, Mercedes, and BMWs. And their little, cramped terraced houses cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Where does all the money come from? In Iain Banks present book, the main income stream - at least for the violent family of the girlfriend - is said to be illicit drug dealing, although this doesn't really play a great role in the story. While this may be a plausible source of wealth for her family, allowing them to surround themselves with expensive cars and country mansions, still their customers must have the money to buy these drugs. North Sea oil is hinted at. But surely all of the wealth of England does not stem from that source alone.
    I remember visiting relatives in Sheffield years ago. University people. They had lived there since the 1940s or 50s. And they asked the same question. Back in those days, Sheffield was a center of industry, producing and exporting goods throughout the world. But Thatcher destroyed all that. Now there seems to be no visible industry left in Sheffield. And yet people continue to live and seemingly to prosper in the "service industries". But where does the money ultimately come from? Is it just the continual accumulation of ever greater mountains of debt? Or is it the banking industry in the City of London which Thatcher encouraged to engage in ever more devious practices, thus robbing money from their gullible customers in other, less rapacious countries?

Hawthorn & Child, by Keith Ridgway

    We were in England for a couple of weeks. Going into the Waterstone's bookshop in the center of town, I noticed that numbers of their books seemed to be particularly recommended. They were chosen for the "W Book Club". So I bought a couple of them. This was the first one I read. A generous typeface with lots of comfortable spacing on the pages. The blurbs on the back cover seemed encouraging. For example the quote from Zadie Smith was: "Idoisyncratic and fascinating... refreshingly contemporary in language and style".
    The two names in the title of the book refer to two policemen in London. There has been a shooting, and so we start reading, expecting to find out who did it, and so forth. A detective story. The clues, the witnesses, the circumstances all seem to produce contradictory narratives, and we wonder how things will develop. But the next chapter lurches forward with another story which seems only vaguely connected with what came before. Then the third chapter is again totally different. We begin to have glimpses of the depravity of one character after the other. Our two policemen are not models of perfect moral behavior. The thing becomes more and more disjointed. The original shooting is no longer of importance. At the end, we are confronted with some sort of depravity involving the wife of the boss of Hawthorn and Child.
    So what is the book about? I suppose police work is disjointed, chaotic. And one is led into the depths of human depravity. Maybe the book is a sort of picture of life in London these days. We were in Plymouth, not London. But the English people there were all extremely friendly and helpful. Totally generous. It is difficult to understand how the clique of old school boys from Eton who are now leading the country to ruin continue to remain in power.

The second "W Book Club" book I bought was "The house of rumour", by Jake Arnott. I read about 150 pages before giving up. It was a silly fantasy mixing 1930s boy adventure science fiction with the characters of Nazi Germany in various absurd, disjointed ways.

Gods Without Men, by Hari Kunzru

    This was the third book from Waterstones. It was certainly more enjoyable to read than the first two. Various episodes involving a rock formation - the Pinnacles - somewhere out in the desert of Nevada. We have the narrative of a Spanish missionary in the year 1778, then a disoriented linguist studying Indian languages in 1920, a western loner in 1947, and a hippie colony high on drugs, believing they are in tune with the Powers of the Galaxy in 1969. But the main story takes place in 2008-9. A small somewhat disjointed young family - the father's family immigrated from Pakistan, the mother's family is established Jewish, and thus both of them give the author the opportunity to write various politically correct things, together with their strangely disturbed and retarded young boy - drive randomly out into the desert to camp in a typical, cheap motel. There they briefly interact with a famous, but also disturbed, English rock musician. And then the boy disappears under the Pinnacles, to reappear months later as a glowing apparition. And that is the end of the book.
    All very mysterious. Googling the author's name, I find that Hari Kunzru is fascinated with the idea of UFOs and such things. Well, OK. But I think that if we are going to have a nice flying saucer story, then it should be properly told, coming to a proper conclusion. Just having a mysterious open ending, saying nothing, seems to me to be a frivolous waste of the reader's time. If the boy, and some of the other characters in past years, climbed into a flying saucer and were transformed into new, transcendental beings, then Hari Kunzru should say so clearly. I want to know what the flying saucer looks like from the inside. And what are the big "mother ships" hovering out in deep space really like? I can remember reading a book as a child many, many years ago which was concerned with the idea that the moons of Mars are vast spaceships. It was a wonderful vision, giving a coherent story. In contrast, the story of this book is just empty coquetry. On the other hand, the book does provide us with a series of amusing glimpses of possible scenes of American desert life over the years.

All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren

    The best book I've read for quite some time. It is loosely based on the story of Huey Long, who was the Governor of Louisiana during the period 1928-32. It's not a short book, but you get a very nice picture of life in the Deep South amongst the comfortable, white ruling class back in those days.
    The book is narrated by a character named Jack Burden. He is the right hand man to "The Boss", Willie Stark, the Governor. Willie Stark, like Huey Long, was a reformer, believing in active government, spending money freely on public works. He was opposed by the old conservative class which was simply concerned with traditional forms of corruption. But in order to succeed, Willie Stark also had to play "hardball". His philosophy was that whatever goodness there is in human nature stems ultimately from evil, and therefore in order to destroy an opponent, one need only find the evil at his core. And so Jack Burden's job was to discover the evil, the corruption, behind one or another of the political opponents of his employer, the Boss.
    Jack had at first thought that his father was a certain, rather unsatisfactory man which his mother had long ago divorced. But in reality his father was "The Judge", a person of seemingly impeccable character who, nevertheless, became an opponent of the Boss. Thus Jack set about discovering the hidden evil behind his father. A complicated story, and it is also a story of the love Jack has for his childhood sweetheart, the daughter of the previous Governor.
    I had some trouble trying to identify the State where the whole thing takes place. Jack keeps returning to the town of his childhood and all the memories it brings. It is on the shore of the Gulf - obviously the Gulf of Mexico. This brings to mind Louisiana, or Alabama, or even Mississippi. But then towards the end of the book, Willie Stark's son becomes a great college football quarterback, and we are told that this is in Georgia. Thus it seems that the action is supposed to be in Georgia. Yet Georgia does not adjoin the Gulf of Mexico.
    Be that as it may, it was interesting to compare Willie Stark's philosophy about good and evil with the other characters in the book. Jack Burden himself doesn't seem to be hiding any great evil secrets. Nor is his love (and in the end his wife), Anne Stanton. While both of them had their ups and downs in life, there was nothing so bad as to be worth trying to blackmail them about it. On the other hand, Karl Rove, the real-life seeker after evil in the employ of that disgusting George W. Bush, was certainly able to defeat John McCain by employing such tactics.
    In the end though, the political games played by the characters in the period of this book seem quaint, almost gentlemanly. There is no actual murder, no gross intimidation. These days, thanks to the Internet, we have become aware of the breathtaking level of evil and corruption which exists at the level of high government.

The Moghul, by Thomas Hoover

    An historical novel. The builder of the Taj Mahal was the Moghul emperor Shah Jahan, who lived from 1592-1666. At the beginning of this period the Portuguese controlled trade with India, dominating the coastal waters with their galleons. But then other countries, and in particular the East India Company of England, began to force their way in as well. This was accompanied by various sea battles - in which the Portuguese often did poorly - and lots of diplomatic intrigues. One of the early figures in this business was the Englishman William Hawkins. And so Thomas Hoover has written a swashbuckling novel based on these ideas, with many of the details changed. William Hawkins becomes "Brian Hawksworth". Shah Jehan becomes "Prince Jader". And so forth.
    It was an enjoyable read, if rather too long.
    The author takes great pains to explain at every step of the way how superior all things Indian were to all things European back then in the 17th century. While this is all part of the fantasy, still it seems to me that a little sober reflection might have been more appropriate here and there. For example:
  1.     The book begins with a sea battle. Hawksworth approaches the port of Surat under sail in his two smallish ships and they are confronted by four large Portuguese men of war guarding the entrance. We can refer to the real-life confrontation in the Battle of Swally. But whereas that was a somewhat indecisive affair, in Captain Hawksworth's fictional version, the English annihilated the Portuguese fleet with almost no loss to their two boats. So if we accept the idea that the English sailors were superior to the Portuguese, and that the Portuguese controlled Indian shipping, then it would follow that European sea power was superior to whatever naval presence the Mohgul Empire may have been able to put into the water.
  2.     Brian Hawksworth then makes it onto land, and he becomes involved in various complicated intrigues. During this time, he is supplied with a continuous stream of female companions, all of whom provide him with the most exquisite delights, thus demonstrating the superiority of Indian hospitality in comparison with that of Europe. But is it reasonable to suppose that the women were also delighted with this whole situation? Despite the fact that under the Islam of the Moghuls, the man was allowed four wives, or rather a whole harem with hundreds of further women, we have a description in the book of the marriage of a Prince to a daughter of the Queen. After the exhausting ceremony, the newly-weds retire to a bed while the rest of the company loudly awaits the blood-stained sheet, proving both the virility of the groom and the virginity of the bride. I know that this disgusting tradition still exists in some Arab countries even today! I don't know if the second, third, and what have you, wives are also subjected to this disgusting mess. And as far as the Hindu part of India was concerned, we have the spectacle of young girls being forced into marriage under highly dubious circumstances. And then, in those days, at least amongst the warrior caste, it was expected that if the man dies then the wives were to throw themselves alive into the flames of his funeral pyre... No. I'm sorry. For me it is obvious that the European version of love was much superior to that which applied in India during the Moghul Empire.
  3.     We are told that Hawksworth has brought along his lute for the trip, and although it was stowed away in his sea chest for all the months of the voyage, still he is sufficiently well in practice to be able to play a very moving rendition of a gaillard or two by that great English composer, William Byrd. Whether he plays to one or another of his girlfriends, or to one or another of the princes of India, they all laugh at him, pitying him his simple,  primitive instrument. Then they demonstrate the superiority of Indian music by having the nearest music-playing slave play the same tune on a sitar, turning it into an elaborate raga. Well, I suppose it is pointless to contest the superiority of one form of art in relation to another. I can only say that I prefer lute music to the twangy sounds of the sitar. And whereas I can understand and be moved by the emotions in a song by William Byrd, the complicated thoughts which are supposed to be associated with an Indian raga leave me cold.
  4.     Then, as the book finally draws to a climax, we have a long description of a major battle between two armies. One is led by the rebellious Prince Jadar (with Hawksworth and his favorite girlfriend in attendance), the other represents the forces of the reigning Moghul. It all seems overwhelming, and certainly Thomas Hoover tells us that the Indian fighting forces were much superior to anything which a humdrum European battle of the period had to offer. (There were many of those, decimating the population of Europe during the 17th century.) And yet, during a later period when the English had India more or less under control, we have the example of the Siege of Delhi, where a small English force was able to capture a fortified town occupied by a much larger defensive army.
    Certainly there was much to admire in India in those days, and there was much to lament about Europe. So we shouldn't take all the exaggerations and fantasy in a book such as this too seriously.

Persuasion, by Jane Austen

    I hadn't read this before, but some years ago there was a film of the novel shown on television, so many of the scenes seemed familiar. The persuasion of the title refers to something that happened eight years before the time of the story (1810 or so). The heroine, Anne Elliot, was persuaded not to marry the man she was in love with, Frederick Wentworth, an officer in the Royal Navy. The reason given was that he was "beneath" her. Yet now, eight years later, he returns to the neighborhood as a Captain in retirement, having acquired some riches in the process of sinking various French ships during the Napoleonic Wars. Furthermore, he is the brother of the wife of the Admiral who is now renting the manor house of the Elliot family. Anne still loves Frederick, and Frederick still loves Anne, but the whole situation with its absurd collection of pretenses means that it takes the length of the complicated story of the book to finally get them together as a married couple. While it is always enjoyable to read these books of Jane Austen, still, I must admit that they often strike me as being rather silly romances, written to inspire the dreamy visions of young girls.
    The reason Anne Elliot was thought to be a member of a higher level of English society than Frederick Wentworth is that her father was a baronet. I have no real idea about these aristocratic titles, and thus I looked it up in the Wikipedia. There I see that it is the lowest form of aristocracy. A baronet is not a peer, and was thus not entitled to sit in the House of Lords before that body was reformed to exclude the aristocracy from meddling too much in government. Nevertheless a baronet is an hereditary title. As far as I can gather from a quick perusal via Google, the idea of baronets seems to be an English thing. True peers - or at least the original ancestors who earned their titles - did so by establishing their merits in the field of battle as companions to the king, or by their positions as medieval warlords. Thus a Count (or Earl in the English system) was the original warlord whose domain became a county in the modern division of government. But in contrast to this, the baronets received their titles by means of paying a certain sum of money to the monarch. The title was simply bought! In more recent times the practice has largely lapsed, but I do see that Margaret Thatcher, that woman who contributed so much to the decline of England, saw to it that her family was also given the title of baronet from the Queen. And thus, since it is an inherited, though debased, title, it seems that her son Mark, a convicted criminal who has distinguished himself through various instances of corruption, holds the ridiculous title "The Second Baronet Thatcher", and this will be passed on through his issue from one generation to the next!
    From the description of Anne Elliot's father in the book, I think that Jane Austen was also making fun of this absurd aspect of English life.

Zen Culture, by Thomas Hoover

    This is an interesting book which seems to be very well researched. Hoover describes the history of both Buddhism and Japan. As far as Buddhism is concerned, on a recent trip to Kathmandu and the approach to Mt. Everest we visited many Buddhist monasteries and walked past countless stupas, turning prayer wheels everywhere along the way. Our Sherpa guide, who was a wonderfully sincere, friendly and helpful man, explained to us the religious significance of all these things. But he said that the Buddhism of the Himalayas is not Zen Buddhism.
    According to the common tradition, the Buddha, namely a character named Siddhārtha Gautama - who is thought to have been a native of Nepal - achieved enlightenment, Nirvana, through meditation, thus becoming the Buddha. But what is this state of Nirvana? Our guide of the mountains was unable to explain his view of this concept in a way which was, for me, understandable. And our guide around the many beautiful temples of Kathmandu had a more detached, down-to-earth view of life. As he explained it, Nepal is a very tolerant place as far as religion goes. Both Buddhism and Hinduism offer the believer thousands, if not millions of possible deities, or holy figures, and so there is no need for the horrible religious wars which have been the main characteristic of the monotheistic religions of the West. After all, if someone is unsatisfied with one possible deity, then it is a trivial matter to simply embrace another one.
    But the main idea of this whole religious mishmash is that after death, we are supposed to be born again to go through life in a new reincarnation. This idea is repugnant to me since the life I have had up to now, which is gradually reaching its final stages, has been so optimal that I can scarcely imagine anything better. Any reincarnation would be worse than the present version! How tedious and boring it would be to have to experience the world over and over again, each time in a less than ideal state of life. But as with many such religious themes, there seem to be countless versions, interpretations, speculations. My impression was that the people of Nepal live in a sublime state of religious confusion and tolerance.
    As Thomas Hoover explains it, the Nirvana of Siddhārtha Gautama was totally unlike this whole religious muddle. The Buddha felt that logic, arguments, ideas, are nothing. Nirvana is the realization that we are nothing. Religion is nothing. And the whole complex structure of modern Buddhism, with all its complicated ideas, statues, paths to enlightenment, and what have you, gradually accumulated over time, leads progressively away from Siddhārtha's pure Nirvana. Then, according to the book, Chán Buddhism developed in China, leading back to the original teachings of Siddhārtha. The word "Chán" was translated into Japanese as "Zen", and so there you are.
    I have never been to Japan so that I am unable to say whether or not all of the wonderful attributes which Thomas Hoover associates with that country and its arts and traditions are true. As mentioned elsewhere here, I was most impressed with the recent performance of a visiting master of the Japanese shakuhachi flute. Nevertheless, it is true that Japan is still reviled in Asia for its past aggressions. The corruption which resulted in the Fukashima Daiichi catastrophe hardly seems consistent with the Zen ideals described in the book. I am also not a fan of Japanese food. As Thomas Hoover describes it, the food is purposefully bland so that the connoisseur can pick out subtle flavors. But I like strong flavors. Indian food, or Italian food. He devotes many pages to Japanese Zen gardens. As I say, I have never been to Japan, so I cannot say whether or not the experience of seeing such a garden would immediately transport me into a transcendental state of Nirvana. On the other hand, I am writing this on the 22nd of June, when the sun has just passed the summer solstice. And looking at our garden now, with nature in the fullness of life, with a structure we have gradually shaped over the years, for me this is as good as it can be.

Amerika, by Franz Kafka

    This book has the subtitle "Der Verschollene", which can be translated as "The man who disappeared". The basic story is that a character named Karl Roßmann, a youth of 17 or so, a native of Germany in the period before the First World War when many people emigrated from Germany to the USA, despite his youth, managed to impregnate a servant girl. And thus he was banished to Amerika with the instruction that he was not allowed to return home.
    The book begins with a somewhat surreal chapter in which Karl's ship has just arrived in New York, and everybody is getting off. But while waiting near the gangway, he remembers that he had forgotten his umbrella. Thus he descends into the bowels of the ship and gets lost. He finds a stoker sulking in his cabin, dissatisfied with the treatment he has had under the head stoker. So Karl tries to be very nice and accompanies the stoker to the captain's cabin in order to lodge a formal complaint. Of course, during all this time, his luggage gets lost, apparently stolen. But in the captain's cabin there happens to be a very important person, a rich senator of the USA, who, it turns out, happens to be a long lost uncle of Karl.
    This first chapter was published independently by Kafka as a short story, "Der Heizer", in 1913. But in the book, the story of Karl in Amerika continues. The uncle puts him up in a huge New York mansion and employs a tutor to come every day to teach him English. The uncle appears to be every bit as evil as today's criminal bankers of Wall Street. After a seemingly trivial misunderstanding, the uncle ejects Karl from his mansion, commanding him never to come again. Once again destitute, Karl joins up with two devious vagrants, one an immigrant from France, the other from Ireland. They cheat him; he tries to escape, but circumstances bring him back to them. In the end he is held by them in an apartment as a kind of slave, serving a fat woman. It's all a horrible mess.
    But I suppose life was brutal for many of the immigrants to New York a hundred years ago. The gangs of New York. Many must have ended up in a kind of dependency little removed from slavery in the sweat shops of the Lower East Side.
    In one chapter, Karl goes to sleep and has an elaborate dream about joining a vast circus which is supposed to take him to someplace in the Midwest, away from all this horror of New York. I suppose that chapter could also be taken to be a Kafkaesque short story.
    But quite frankly I found the book to be simply tedious. Throughout, it was clear that Kafka had never traveled to America, and thus he had no real idea about what it was like. Also the book was unfinished. In fact there are three unfinished manuscripts for novels by Kafka. The other two are "Der Process" (The Trial) and "Das Schloss" (The Castle). It seems that Kafka burned many of his manuscripts, being dissatisfied with them. But he gave these three to his friend Max Brod, with the instruction to burn them upon his (Kafka's) death - of tuberculosis, in 1924. Well, what would you do in Max Brod's place? After all, if Kafka really wanted the manuscripts burned, then surely he would have done it himself. Now they are worth lots of money. And the various heirs of the people who owned them at one time or another have become involved in an unending series of squabbles over the money.
    After finishing Amerika, and being disappointed, I started reading Das Schloss in the hope that it might turn out to be a more satisfying read. But I have now given up after getting through only about a third of it. It is concerned with a character named "K" (for Kafka?) becoming involved in an endless and seemingly absurd series of interactions with an all-powerful bureaucracy. The book goes on and on with the details of the logic, or lack of logic, of this bureaucracy. The idea of this is interesting at first, but after pages and pages of the same, it again becomes increasingly tedious. It seems to me that Kafka's natural medium was the short story. Expanding such short stories into manuscripts hundreds of pages long was not a good idea.
    It is often said, perhaps on the basis of his stories, that Franz Kafka was an unhappy man, depressed with the failings of the world. And yet as a student he was very successful; in his professional life he worked for the Workers Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia. Thus he was himself a bureaucrat in the style of Das Schloss. But far from being a depressing failure in this profession, he in fact flourished, receiving rapid promotion. It was a lush job where he could call it a day at two o'clock in the afternoon, leaving time to continue with his writing career. And far from being a social outcast, I see that his biographer, Reiner Stach, states that his life was full of "incessant womanizing".
    With hindsight, many people say that Kafka's works represent a kind of anticipation of the horrors of the Nazi period. Perhaps this is true. Nevertheless, for me the short stories are much better than these half finished novels.

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

    In the summer of 1816, Mary Godwin - she had not yet married the poet Percy Shelley - spent the summer with her future husband in Geneva, together with Lord Byron, Mary's step-sister Claire Clairmont, and John William Polidori. As a member of the rich British aristocracy, the money flowed from Lord Byron, and he rented the spacious Villa Diodati, overlooking Lake Geneva, for his guests. The Shelleys took a more modest house in the neighborhood. It was a rainy summer, so they gathered together in Lord Byron's villa and discussed one thing and another. Byron suggested that they each write a tale of the supernatural. And thus Mary Shelley wrote this famous tale of Frankenstein.
    In those days, electricity was something new, mysterious. It was found that if an electrical current was passed through a dead frog's leg, then that leg twitched as if it were alive. Could it be that electricity was the thing that animated life? Could dead matter be brought to life by some chemical, or electrical means?
    These days we know much more about what goes on in a living organism. People play around with DNA, constructing arbitrary sequences of the stuff, just for fun. We can make tiny machines using DNA. In 2012, George M. Church wrote a book about such things and then for fun encoded the text of the entire book in a long strand of DNA. In 2010, Craig Ventor's team of researchers constructed a sequence of DNA, stuck it into a cell from which the original DNA had been removed, and found that it lived and reproduced itself. Life seems to be nothing more than a vast - albeit extremely complicated - chemical process. In any case, it is certainly not true that a lone chemist in 1816 would have been capable of creating a living human being from inanimate material.
    Nevertheless, I found this book to be fascinating. Victor Frankenstein was not the monster, rather he was its creator. He grew up in Geneva in comfortable circumstances, perhaps in the Villa Diodati itself. Victor's family was extremely loving, and so forth. He developed an interest in "natural philosophy", or "science", as it is called these days, and traveled to the university in Eichstadt in Germany in order to study there. After a couple of years he discovered the secret of life - which, according to Shelley - was astonishingly simple, and so he conceived the idea of creating a human being. She does not waste many pages on the details of this process. After all, this is supposed to be a tale of the supernatural. But she does tell us that Frankenstein found the whole thing to be often disgusting. In the interests of ease of construction, he decided to make his monster somewhat bigger than the normal plan. Suddenly the monster comes alive, and Frankenstein is shocked and revolted by the being he has created. He flees from his apartment, and when he returns the monster has thankfully disappeared.
    But as the story develops we find that Frankenstein's monster is really a tender-hearted soul. He finds real people to be wonderful, and he himself is revolted by his own deformities. Despite these, he has super-human strength, agility, power. He would like to help people. He saves a drowning person, and so forth. But despite all his efforts for goodness, people attack him, or run away, screaming. Eventually he succumbs to the urge for revenge against his creator. He strangles Victor Frankenstein's friends and dear ones, one after the other. And Frankenstein is driven to near madness in his pursuit of the monster. In the end, Frankenstein dies of exhaustion, and the monster, after declaring his remorse about the whole situation, disappears into the ice fields of the Arctic to let himself die through cold and hunger.

    I have never seen any of the Frankenstein movies which have been made over the years. I can imagine that they are nothing more than silly horror fantasies, nowhere near as interesting as the book. If so, then they miss the point. It is a parable on the dilemma of human "progress". The most obvious example which springs to mind is the artificial - or "synthetic" - life which people are now creating. Consider gene therapy. Some people have inherited terrible genetic diseases. In the natural order of things they would soon die, as infants. But modern medicine keeps them alive. And perhaps they can be "healed" by altering their DNA, thus chemically changing them into "normal" people. One mechanism for doing this is by infecting them with an artificially created virus, or retro-virus, which infects many of the cells in their body, replacing the bit of DNA which is thought to be abnormal with a more normal copy. Well, OK. This is the good phase of Frankenstein's creation. But what if this artificial virus becomes an infectious disease, creating a pandemic? Can we be sure this will never happen? Who knows? And in the absence of such knowledge can we justify denying these sick people such gene therapy?
    Or think about atomic energy. Obviously a source of evil, a monster. But it could be a source of good, perhaps using the thorium fuel cycle, providing almost limitless supplies of energy.
    And robots. How quaint were the "Three Laws of Robotics" proposed back then in the 1950s by the science fiction writer Issac Asimov. He imagined that robots were supposed to be loving entities, helping and protecting a grateful humanity. What a difference reality is! One of the main drivers in the development of robots is the military. In complete contradiction to Asimov's naive vision, the main purpose of these robots is to kill people and at the same time, protect themselves.
    In light of all these possible horrors which far exceed the visions of Mary Shelley, many people simply stick their heads in the sand, rejecting everything which is new. Pure, simple nature should be allowed to prevail. Save the Earth! is their absurd creed. Of course humanity, as a species, will not prevail forever. But the thing that we have in abundance: flexibility, adaptability, shouldn't be underestimated. We have the ability to create all sorts of monsters, but if the will is there, they can be brought under control to our common good.

The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks

    The author is a professor of neurology at the New York University Medical School. Judging from this book, and from a TED video in which he gives a talk, Oliver Sacks seems to be a very humane person, well suited for dealing with patients with difficult mental dilemmas. He tries to understand their feelings, the reasons they might not behave in ways which most people would consider to be normal. Many have brain injuries, often caused by a stroke, leading to memory loss, or the loss of other functions. Or the hormones may act up. And then of course there are people who are, on the one hand totally mentally retarded, but on the other hand are able to perform unbelievable feats of memory, arithmetical calculation, music, or whatever. What makes them all tick?
    The book consists of a collection of short descriptions of patients Dr. Sacks has known, illustrating various things which can come up, and he philosophizes about what their stories tell us. The author himself has an interesting mental abnormality called "prosopagnosia", or "face blindness". Apparently many other famous people also have this condition. It seems difficult to imagine what the problem is, but as is shown in this video, even for "normal" people, it is difficult to recognize faces if we look at them upside down.
    Then there are people who cannot remember the immediate past. Their memory ends years, even decades ago. So they live in the present, seemingly unaware of the problem, perhaps fighting within themselves to maintain some sort of sensible idea of their own identity. For the outsider, such cases seem totally hopeless, tragic.
    And then he describes the case of two apparently moronic and deformed twins who were totally helpless, unable to exist in the world without help. They could hardly speak. And they could barely grasp the ideas of addition and subtraction of numbers. Multiplication and division meant absolutely nothing to them. Yet if given any date up to 40,000 years in the past or the future, then their eyes would swivel back and forth for a second or two, as if watching some numerical vision, and immediately they could say which day of the week fell on that date. This seems to me to be incredible. After all, they would have to know the rule for leap years: namely every year divisible by 100 and not divisible by 400 is not a leap year! Also they seemed to recognize prime numbers - even those of 10 or 12 decimal places - just by feeling that they are more pleasant than non-prime numbers.
    In the clinic of Dr. Sacks it was decided that the goal of neurology is to "cure" people, enabling them to function normally in the real world. And in the case of the twins it was thought that if they were separated, then perhaps they would not spend all their time playing around with these senseless numbers, and instead they might be able to become more normal. But after the separation it was found that both of the twins had lost their strange numerical genius. Instead they simply became hopelessly retarded simpletons, robbed of their one pleasure in life.
    The book was a fascinating read. Many of the cases dealt with make one question what it really is to be a normal thinking person. I go through life imagining that other people experience the world in the same way that I do. But this is not always true. Maybe it is only seldom true. Who knows?

The Wooden World, by N.A.M. Roger

    The author is a professor of history at Oxford. He wasn't when he wrote this book, yet it, along with numbers of other well researched books of an academic nature led to his success. The subject is the British Navy during the Seven Years War (1756-63). What was life really like for the sailors on the ships? An interesting subject, fraught with many misconceptions. But to be honest, I became a bit bored with the book towards the end, in the chapters devoted to "Careers at Sea", "Patronage and Promotion", and so forth. These topics are interesting in themselves, but in the book the various ideas are supported by hundreds of short descriptions of the careers of countless obscure individuals. For the academic attempting to "prove" his point to other academics, this might be necessary, but for the general reader it simply becomes tedious.
    So what was life like in His Majesties Ships during the 18th century? Were the ships like concentration camps, with the poor sailors, kidnapped by violent "press gangs", continually cringing under the whip, flogged through the fleet, and what have you? The author deals with all of these misconceptions.
    For example, what was that business about press gangs? And what is "impressment" anyway? Only sailors were subject to impressment, not landsmen, and many categories of sailors were exempt from the press. Furthermore, landsmen were against it, so that often naval officers who were engaged in impressing sailors on land would be themselves arrested and thrown into jail. Compare this with the situation today. It is only in the last few years that Germany has done away with the universal draft into military service. Many countries still maintain a draft - that is, forcing young men, often against their will, into military service. And this is in a time of general peace! During war, it is thought to be quite normal to force almost all young men against their will into this murderous business. What a brutal attitude we have these days! In the 18th century in England, people thought that it was a dreadful, inhuman business if just a few sailors were "drafted" during a time of war.
    Well, what was life like for the officers and men aboard a big ship with 80 or 100 guns? To begin with, I was astonished to read about the number of men on these ships. Hundreds and hundreds of people. It must have been extremely crowded. But the food and drink were very good in comparison with what could be expected on land. Many sailors joined the navy, and stayed with it, for that reason.
    And what is all that business about flogging with the "cat-o-nine-tails"? According to the naval regulations, a captain was only allowed to administer at most 12 strokes on his own initiative. More severe punishments required a court martial, involving lots of captains and lots of bother, and which often resulted in very extreme punishments. So they were only rarely brought into effect. Cruel officers who were unpopular with the men produced dangerous ships which would fail in action. Thus the admiralty took pains to remove such officers. Furthermore, such officers, upon landing at port, would often be attacked by their sailors. Murder was not unknown. And the idea of "discipline" as it is known today was not practiced in the 18th century. These days, a poor soldier, forced into the army by an oppressive draft, is expected to obey his officers without question, grovelling before them with signs of submission. But in the 18th century navy, the sailors often knew much more about the complicated process of sailing a square-rigged ship than did the officers. They often spoke as equals with the officers. Arguing with them, shouting and cursing, even coming to blows. That was considered normal. As N.A.M. Roger explains it, the excessive emphasis these days which is placed on discipline is due to the fact that our society is in a state of flux, of insecurity. In contrast, 18th century England was a settled society, where the established order was not brought into question.
    So what were the crimes which were most heavily punished? To begin with, theft was considered to be a most serious crime. With so many people together on the ship, if trust is destroyed then the ship goes to pieces. A thief would be sentenced to hundreds of lashes. And there were cases where the rest of the sailors on the ship still felt that the punishment was insufficient. But then the worst crime was considered to be sodomy. It often resulted in the death penalty, but if not that, then certainly a court martial leading to many hundreds of lashes.
    These days, homosexuality is thought to be normal. Fair enough. But consider the conditions which are reputed to exist in the prisons of the U.S.A. - and I suppose in other countries as well. Men are concentrated together in confined spaces for long periods of time, and they engage in the forced homosexual rape of one another. And while the crime of a man raping a woman is considered to be particularly odious, there seems to be a certain toleration for homosexual rape. I have been told that homosexuality is the order of the day in many modern naval ships. Does this mean that the modern navy is better than the navy of the 18th century? I hardly think so.

Fermat's Last Theorem, by Simon Singh

    When I started studying mathematics in the early 1970s there were four mythical problems which were considered to be completely intractable. They were:
It was thought that each of these problems in mathematics was so difficult that they would never be solved in our lifetimes. Perhaps they would never be solved even until the end of time. Maybe they were so difficult that they were unsolvable in the sense of Gödel's Incompeteness Theorem. Who could say?  In any case it would have been rather a waste of time to actually start seriously thinking about such things.
    And yet here we are in the year 2013, and the first three of these problems have now been solved! How strange is reality! Who would ever have expected such a result?
    Back then in the 1970s I had the feeling that anything which had been published in mathematics could be understood if you simply applied yourself to it for a couple of days, or at most weeks. The proofs of the theorems known then were contained in journal papers which were generally short articles, at the most 10 or 20 pages long. Some fields, such as number theory, or algebraic topology, had developed into involved technical disciplines, where it might take some effort to work ones way into the subject. Yet each individual result seemed to be something which could be contemplated alone, as a single, beautiful work of art. All that has changed.
    The first of these problems to be solved was the Four Color Problem, by Wolfgang Haken. He was 50 years old when he solved it, thus falsifying the idea that all mathematicians are washed up by the time they reach the age of 30. The idea of the four color problem is to show that for any conceivable map delineating countries, counties, or what have you, it is possible to color the different regions with at most 4 colors so that no two adjacent regions have the same color. The "proof" was a bit crazy. The idea was that if the proposition was false, then there must be some map which needed at least 5 colors. Using a certain argument, it was shown that if this were true, then such a map must contain some one of a "small" number of particular patterns within it which could not be colored with 4 colors. In fact, there were about 2000 such patterns, and each of them was shown to have a 4-coloring using a computer program. But how did Haken identify all these 2000 patterns? This is too much for the human brain to contemplate! He told us that in the end, when it was difficult to find the last ones, he got his children to think about them. For each newly discovered pattern which hadn't been thought of before, the reward was $10, or something. When no new patterns were discovered, and everybody had given up, the theorem was declared to be solved. (Later, Haken told us that he had a diligent Chinese graduate student who identified all of these patterns using a programmed algorithm, itself running on a computer. Since computers are obviously much better at such things than people, we can assert that the theorem is definitely solved.)
    But Haken's real passion was 3-dimensional topology. He spent many years trying to prove the Poincaré Conjecture. Indeed, I also wasted years of time in my hopelessly naïve efforts trying to approach the Poincaré Conjecture. Of the four great problems, I like to think that it is the least obscure of them. It concerns a basic property of geometry. Namely, of all possible 3-dimensional spaces, the basic, most simple space, which we think of as being the 3-dimensional sphere, is - subject to some simple qualifications - characterized by the property that all closed curves within the space can be shrunk to a point. The proof, which in the end was found by the Russian mathematician, Grigori Perelman, does not use the simple algorithmic methods we were thinking of. Instead it is a long, involved and complicated argument using ideas which at first seem to have nothing to do with the problem. It is concerned with something called the Ricci flow within the theory of Riemann manifolds. Some years ago, I thought it would be a good idea to try and understand this work of Perelman. I knew the basic definitions of Riemann geometry. For example, we have the very clear and well written textbook of Manfredo Perdigao do Carmo, which provides an excellent introduction for a university course, running over a semester or two of lectures. But such an introduction does not describe Perelman's work. Perelman himself has withdrawn from the world, becoming something of a recluse. One reason he gives is that Shing-Tung Yau, a Chinese, was associated with a manuscript purporting to describe the proof of the Poincaré Conjecture, but in reality its purpose was to downplay Perelman's work, and instead to play up some work of the Chinese mathematicians Cao and Zhu. This manuscript can be freely downloaded on the internet. I tried reading it, but got bogged down and fed up with the fact that it didn't seem to be describing Perelman's work, and thus the Poincaré Conjecture, at all. Another manuscript describing the proof was written by John W. Morgan and Gang Tian. Their manuscript uses a different form of notation, and they refer to the textbook on Riemann geometry by Peter Petersen for this. So I started reading that. But I find that half of the formulas in that book seem to have glaring typographical errors, leading to irritating puzzles and incomprehension. That is certainly not to say that I am immune from such things. On the contrary, everything I write is filled with such errors. Thus it is not for me to criticize. The end of the matter is that I decided that my curiosity for this subject had evaporated, and I just gave up. But I am left with great admiration for that wonderful mathematician Grigori Perelman, and I can only salute him for his decision to reject all of these unpleasant hangers-on and their various prizes. What a man of principle! He has even rejected the $1,000,000 prize money of the Clay Institute, saying that the mathematician Richard Hamilton deserves it equally.
    Well, the present book deals with the proof of the third problem, Fermat's Last Theorem. Again, a huge proof, almost beyond the capacity of a single person to comprehend as a whole. It uses methods which have been developed in diverse fields of algebra and number theory. In the end it came down to showing the equivalence of two obscure areas of mathematics which, at first, appear to have nothing to do with one another, namely the theory of modular forms and the theory of elliptic curves. This is the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture. I know very little about such things, but the book, written for non-mathematicians, was most interesting. It gives lots of historical background on Fermat, and how things developed over the centuries. We have very complete accounts of the famous stories of mathematics. All the details of the death by dueling of Evariste Galois in 1832. The story of Sophie Germain. Even various details of Pythagoras' academy back in ancient Greece. But in the end, the story is of the monumental struggle of Andrew Wiles to finally prove Taniyama-Shimura, and thus Fermat's Last Theorem. There is a beautiful BBC film about all of this which you can see via YouTube. Both of these great mathematicians, Grigori Perelman and Andrew Wiles, have achieved things which are beyond anything I can possibly imagine. One is left with a feeling of wonder and astonishment. And so who knows what will come in the future. Could it be that the world will soon awake to the spectacle of a vast and incomprehensible proof of the Riemann Hypothesis? I wouldn't bet against it!
    And yet, in the end, what does all of this amount to? The statements of the first three conjectures have been shown to be true. And hardly anybody doubts that the Riemann Hypothesis is also true. But then there are dozens of other, more or less obscure, hypotheses in mathematics which have still not been proven. Many of them are so obscure that nobody is even trying. In an abstract sense, there are infinitely many possible hypotheses in mathematics. Who is to say what is interesting and what is not? What should be the purpose of mathematics anyway? Is it to solve all of these more or less obscure and abstruse puzzles? Those two great, towering figures of the past, Carl Friedrich Gauss and David Hilbert, spent their mature years thinking about problems in physics. And surely the problem of resolving the chaotic state of theoretical physics today could provide a fruitful and meaningful field of study for mathematicians of the future.

The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling

    The author, J.K. Rowling, is the person who wrote all those Harry Potter books. Hundreds of millions were sold to shrieking hoards of little schoolgirls, and thus Mrs. Rowling has become the owner of vast wealth. Hundreds of millions, although I see that she denies that she is actually a billionaire. Is it just me, or am I not alone in thinking that these childish fairy stories must be pretty worthless?
    But then I read that she had published an "adult" book - titled "The Cuckoo's Calling" - under an obscure pseudonym - Robert Galbraith - and the few unsuspecting people who happened to read it thought that it was very impressive. I was in town a couple of days ago, and having a look in the bookshop, I saw this one. It was her first "adult" book. She had published it under her own name last year, and I see that it was a number one best seller. The many blurbs on the cover and on the first few pages were all ecstatic, so I decided to buy it, thus adding another dollar or two to Mrs. Rowling's immense wealth.
    Well, I enjoyed it. Rather longish at 568 pages. But when you get into the story then you are swept along, eager to find out what happens next. Thinking about it, I suppose it is rather like a soap-opera, going on from week to week, giving us a socially critical view of the failings and pretenses of people in a small town in the West of England. All of the characters, except possibly poor Krystal, are a mess, or at least they have steered their lives into impossibly messy situations.
    Is this true "adult" life as it really is? If so, why does my life, and the lives of the people I know, fail to resemble a soap-opera? One way or the other, I must admit that in my fantasy I enjoy the idea of life as a soap-opera, and now that I have finished the book, it is replaced with a slight feeling of emptiness. Perhaps I'll order The Cuckoo's Calling in the hope that it is also such an absorbing thing to read. But still, I refuse to lower myself to the level of Harry Potter!

The Cuckoo's Calling, by Robert Galbraith

    Well, this certainly isn't a soap-opera. It is a detective story, I suppose somewhat in the tradition of Agatha Christie, or what have you. The book starts off with a murder. Then there is a long story in which the detective interviews one character after the other. Huge amounts of dialogue. Who is telling the truth, what is being hidden, who has a motive? And through all of this we gradually learn more and more details about the scene of the murder. Then at the end of the book, all the logical loose ends are recounted and it is shown how the complicated, extremely unlikely and constructed actual murder took place. And the reader is surprised to find that the murderer was none of the persons we had been lead to think about as the book progressed.
    I'm not really a fan of detective stories. I've never yet read an Agatha Christie book. But of course I have read some of the stuff of Raymond Chandler. Is it true that women prefer these logical puzzles, whereas men prefer hard-hitting action?
    As with what I understand the Agatha Christie books to be, this book deals with murder amongst the extremely rich, monied class of England. We mere mortals gain our information about these people via the pictures of the paparazzi, or perhaps stories in women's magazines, or the "newspapers" of the Murdoch empire. I suppose that the author, being now a member of this class of people, has herself gained first hand experience of what they are like. What do they do or say while hiding in some sort of privacy, before emerging onto the public stage to the clamor of all the reporters, the flashes of cameras and telephoto lenses? According to J.K. Rowling's account, in the midst of all their drug taking, swearing (and extremely excessive use of the f--- word), expensive clothes, chauffeurs, furniture, assorted hangers-on, and what have you, they are lonely in their rapacious isolation. Are the people whose faces and figures fill the pages of women's magazines really as crude as all this? Who knows? Who cares?
    Still, Rowling is such a good writer that a story such as this, as long-winded and contrived as it is, was a most enjoyable read. I hope that she might settle on a more satisfactory genre for continuing with her "adult" novels, written under whatever pseudonym she might choose.

The Sea, The Sea, by Iris Murdoch

    The first book of Iris Murdoch which I have read. I only became aware of her through hearing about a movie which was made (and which I didn't see), portraying the fact that she was burdened with Alzheimer's disease in the last years of her life. But I see that as a younger woman, in her 30s during the 1950s, she was quite free with herself. This led a former lover, Elias Canetti, himself the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, to write in extremely unflattering terms about his former protégé. Perhaps this is relevant to the present book.
    The story is that a theater director, Charles Arrowby, retires and takes up residence in a derelict house, rotting away on a cliff, somewhere on the coast of England. He enjoys observing the ocean in its various moods, and he enjoys swimming off the rocks, despite the fact that it is often difficult to climb back up the cliffs onto dry land. His pension seems adequate, if not opulent. At the beginning of the book, he tells us that he is writing his biography, even though it seems more like a diary. He reminisces about his various loves in his life in the theater. He has never married. No children. He seems to be an unpleasant, arrogant character. Despite this, a motley collection of actors and actresses, his former lovers, find their way to his house. He tells them to go away, but they keep telling him that they love him.
    But he tells us that he really loves his childhood sweetheart, Mary Hartley Fitch, who didn't marry him back in the old days, but instead married Ben Fitch, a virile ex-soldier who was involved in some act of brutal heroism in the closing stages of World War II. When Charles bought his retirement house, he was unaware of this. In fact for 40 years he has been ignorant of the whereabouts of "Hartley", and he simply remembers the perfection of their lost childhood love. Yet, strangely enough, she and Ben happen to have also retired to the same obscure English coastal village, and so Charles meets his childhood sweetheart again. Being an egotist, he imagines that she wants nothing more than rejoining him in their lost love. But that is not what she wants. She had already recognized the faults in his character all those years ago. Charles kidnaps her into his house, with its strange assortment of theater types, keeping her prisoner in a locked room. She begs to be released, tears, hysterics. Eventually he does so. All of this seemingly absurd drama is accompanied with much long-winded philosophizing about the nature of love and marriage. The book ends with Charles's cousin, James, who has taken up Buddhism, first of all performing some sort of magical act, levitating himself around the cliffs and thus saving Charles's life, presumably through the sheer force of magical Buddhist meditation. Then, at the end, James, who has become a rich member of the the British military class, retired in London, commits suicide not by shooting himself with his service revolver, or falling on his sword, but rather by sitting calmly in an armchair and meditating on beauty, thus achieving the transcendental state of Nirvana, floating serenely out of this world, leaving his body peacefully behind.
    Of course these excursions into Buddhist nonsense tended to spoil the story for me. And all of the philosophizing about love seemed to be leading nowhere. After all, what is love, marriage? What is the point of it without children?  It seems to me that a book like this, almost wholly devoted to the question of the nature of love, yet where the natural product of love, namely a family with children, is entirely absent, simply makes no sense. Despite living a life of "free love" with many lovers, Iris Murdoch remained barren. This seems to be becoming the norm in the modern world. And thus I suppose this book describes the lives of many people today, hectically seeking an empty fulfillment and thinking that that is love.

The Blind Watchmaker, by Richard Dawkins

    There is a very nice video which you can watch in which Richard Dawkins responds to a visit of the German Pope to England. The Pope had earlier uttered the absurd assertion - for reasons one can only speculate about - that the evils of Nazism were due to Atheism. Dawkins demolishes such nonsense.
    Although Dawkins is a biologist, his role in life seems to be to combat the forces of ignorance, trying to reason with unreasonable people. And thus this book - whose purpose is to explain how the almost unbelievably complicated mechanisms met with in the living world can be understood as the end result of small steps of evolution - often goes off on lengthy, rather folksy tangents, aimed at these people. So I found myself skipping quickly over large sections of the book, looking for what he really wanted to tell us.
    The book was first published in 1986, at a time when I also spent lots of time playing around with the simple home computers of those days. We fiddled about with BASIC, and if we wanted to pretend that we were being sophisticated, then we wrote things in PASCAL. I see that Richard Dawkins also caught the computing bug back then, and he includes a chapter or two in which he proudly presents us with some pictures his little BASIC program produced, illustrating how complexity can arise out of simplicity.
    But I did find his chapter on the origins of life to be interesting. Once some self-reproducing cell exists, then everything goes ahead along the path to complexity. But how does that original, unique "ur"-cell come into existence? As far as I'm concerned, I think that the universe has existed forever, and thus there has been infinitely much time for life to appear. That would mean that life would be everywhere where it could possibly be. Panspermia. But if we suppose that the theory of panspermia does not apply to life on the Earth, then what possible mechanism would apply? Dawkins first considers the question of how improbable is improbable? For example if there are trillions, quadrillions, or even higher decimal powers of possible earth-like planets in the observable universe, then if our Earth is the only planet in the whole universe which happened to spawn life, it follows that something like the origin of life, which has a probability of only one to a quadrillion or something, might reasonably turn up, namely on our unique little Earth here alone in the whole universe.
    So how could such an ur-cell develop on the Earth out of inanimate matter? To begin with, he observes that crystals grow by adding atoms on to their surfaces in a duplication of the crystal structure. But then the crystal structure might have imperfections. These are also reproduced by the growing crystal. Perhaps certain patterns of imperfections may be more likely to spawn further copies of themselves, for example by influencing the flow of fluids containing the atoms for building more of the crystals. And then that will lead to an evolution of crystal imperfections. Maybe based on silicon. Then maybe these evolved silicon crystals with imperfections gradually incorporate carbon into their crystal structures, and then gradually the carbon takes over.
    Well, OK. Given that we are talking about a one in a quadrillion, or gazillion, or something, chance, and even then, the Earth had almost a billion years to get going with this whole thing, then I suppose the argument is plausible. But for me, knowing that the universe is eternal, the theory of panspermia seems much more sensible.
     Dawkins also devotes a chapter to the question of why it is that in some species of animals, the male has some ridiculous structures for making an extravagant display in order to attract the females. We see this particularly in birds. The males might have totally elongated tail feathers. Or they might have bright colors. So they are easy prey for their predators. Yet the females always have sensible forms. Why is this? There is an interesting argument showing how this seemingly irrational product comes about. It starts off with the observation that in such species, only a few of the males each mate with many females. Such successful males take the females they can get. On the other hand, the females can choose which males they prefer to mate with. And so on. It is a complicated argument, too long to describe here...
    But just thinking about how unimaginably complicated life is, it seems a miracle that it does actually exist. We are nothing but big blobs consisting of huge numbers of cells, all stuck together. Yet it all works, almost perfectly, performing more functions than anybody can imagine. I can hardly believe that I am alive!

Touching the Void, by Joe Simpson

    A true story of extreme, almost absurd danger, and survival against all odds on a mountain in South America.
    Well..., OK. It is nice to be in the mountains. The air is clear and fresh. And you feel good after a couple of hours of strenuous walking, climbing up a thousand meters or so. It's great to reach the top, admire the view and have the feeling that you have accomplished something.
    We traveled to Nepal last autumn and walked around the mountains there, staying in comfortable lodges. The highest point of the trek was about 5000 meters. Just a gentle hilltop, surrounded by high, snow covered peaks, towering thousands of meters above us. Mt. Everest was not far away. An impressive sight, but not a pleasant goal, as far as I could see. Apparently the top is littered with the corpses of dead climbers who did not make it up and back. Climbing Mt. Everest is literally a matter of stepping over corpses.
    But still, 5000 meters was nothing, just an afternoon walk, and so I began to fantasize about climbing a bit higher. In a certain sense, the highest mountain in the world is not Everest. Rather it is Chimborazo in the Andes of Ecuador. The fact of the matter is that due to the centrifugal force of the Earth's rotation, the distance from the center of the Earth to sea-level is about 21 kilometers greater at the equator in comparison with the distance at the poles. And thus, since Chimborazo, at 6300 meters, is situated almost directly on the equator, we find that its summit is the furthest point on the surface of the Earth from the middle point of the Earth. Further than the summit of Mt. Everest, even though it is over 2 1/2 kilometers lower when measured with respect to sea-level, and thus also with respect to atmospheric pressure. So it seemed to me that that would be a wonderful mountain to try to climb. An adventure. Undoubtedly strenuous, but possible even for an old man such as I am. No unpleasant climbing over corpses. An elegant mountain with an interesting history. Also the German Alpine Club organizes tours to the mountain, staying in very comfortable detached lodges at a height of 4000 meters on the slopes of the mountain to allow for good altitude acclimatisation.
    A precondition for the tour is that participants should be experienced climbers, or, failing that, one should take part in a course in the Alps in order to become acquainted with the basics of climbing on glaciers. So I did that a couple of weeks ago. Two summer days on a glacier with an intense sun reflecting off the snow and ice. The first day was on slushy snow, roped together. The problem with glacial snow is that it might be hiding a crevasse. But to be quite honest, I hate snow. We have had too much snow in the last few winters here. And the last time I was skiing, I found that the slopes were crowded with people who seemed to be half out of control of themselves, going too fast, and wearing helmets, thus protecting themselves but presenting an even greater danger to the people they were crashing into.
    So for me, walking along, roped up, for hours through slushy snow on the glacier in the hot sun was unpleasant, and my backpack began to give me a biting backache. Above us was a "Seilschaft" (a line of climbers roped together) walking up the snow to the summit of the Wildspitze. What a tedious business it seemed. I was thankful that we didn't have to spend so many hours in this wet snow under the hot sun. The next day we went over to a part of the glacier which was relatively free of snow. That was more fun. Glacial ice lets you get a nice grip with the crampons. It is easy to walk on it. And even steep slopes are simple to walk and climb on. So at least now I know what an ice screw is. And how you are supposed to hold the ice pick. Our guide and instructor gave each of us a booklet of 140 pages, entitled "Know-how am Berg". About 80 pages are devoted to tying all kinds of knots. It is really just a book of knots. He demonstrated a few of them for us. In particular, the Prusik hitch plays a role in this book of Joe Simpson.
    The story is that Simpson, together with his partner, Simon Yates, decided to climb the Siula Grande - which is a mountain in Peru - not along the easiest, most logical route, but rather up an extremely difficult and steep face. Part of the problem with an obscure mountain like this, situated in a country like Peru, is that if you get into difficulties there are no helicopters as in the Alps, or helpful Sherpa as in the Himalayas to come and rescue you. Simpson and Yates, together with a casual acquaintance, Richard, whom they happened to meet in Lima and who agreed to sit in their base camp for a week while they were away, were days away from civilization, which could only be reached after a long donkey ride.
    Reading the book, we appreciate that the ascent was terrible. Somehow, the whole idea of these kinds of books seems absurd. People putting themselves into horribly dangerous situations, involving unimaginable degrees of physical and mental suffering. Why do we read such things? Is it in order to contrast our situation, sitting comfortably in an armchair, reading all this stuff about the mess they are in, and then to reflect with pleasure on the fact that we are - thankfully - not there? If so, then the fascinated reader soon reaches the part where the descent begins. Simpson falls through a pile of snow up near the summit, breaking his leg. We then read of the heroic efforts of Yates to help him down the mountain. Then comes the true catastrophe. Yates is forced to cut the rope; Simpson falls into a huge crevasse; he is left for dead; Yates is himself near the limit of his endurance; Simpson saves himself against all odds by lowering himself down even further into the crevasse; he crawls for miles down dangerous, broken ice fields and finally arrives at the base camp, as near to death as it is possible to get without actually dying. What a dreadful story!
    I have also been reading Edward Whymper's account of his first ascent of Chimborazo - and various other Ecuadorian mountains - in the year 1880. (Whymper led the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865.) Whymper's detached, matter-of-fact Victorian writing is a pleasant contrast with these hysterical modern mountain books. He was enjoying the views, collecting the insects, studying the geology of the area. His goal was simply to make it to the top. Not to get himself and others into a situation where the chances of survival are nearly nil, and then, through pure chance, to survive, and to write a book about it.
    Both Whymper and Simpson devote large sections of their books to the fact that the weather in the Andes is dreadful. Reading these books makes me think that perhaps the discomfort of this proposed trip to Ecuador might outweigh whatever possible enjoyment it might bring.

Travels Amongst the Great Andes of the Equator, by Edward Whymper

    Whymper spent about six months in Ecuador - the first half of the year 1880 - accompanied by his guide, Jean-Antoine Carrel, together with the cousin, Louis Carrel. He climbed Chimborazo twice, once at the beginning, and the second time at the end of his stay. In the meantime, he made first ascents of most of the other highest mountains in Ecuador and collected lots of biological, mineralogical and ethnological specimens of the things to be found there. It was a beautifully produced book back then in 1892, and a fascinating read about what life was like. Many dramatic illustrations.
    When following the link, it is only sensible to read the book online with a couple of degrees of magnification. It appears that this is the copy of the book held by the University of California at Berkeley, and while it was scanned to high resolution, the pdf file which you can download is of such low resolution as to be unreadable. The book is offered in other formats too: EPUB, Kindle, and so forth. The text appears to have simply been obtained using some sort of text recognition program, but the people at the library did not take the trouble to check the fact that nothing but pure gobbledygook came out.
    Edward Whymper was particularly interested in the effects of altitude on the human body. His theory was that the immediate cause of high altitude sickness was the fact that the gasses in the body needed to escape at low pressure. Rather like the bends during rapid decompression of divers. I suppose that modern medicine would dispute this hypothesis. In any case, Whymper continuously kept track of his temperature, heart rate, rate of breathing, and what have you. In one passage of the book he describes an experiment in which he determines his rate of walking at altitude in comparison with that measured at lower altitudes. He says that in both cases he was relatively heavily dressed and wearing heavy mountain boots. On page 300 of the book he gives a table, showing the times he took to walk 7 miles, mile for mile, in London, and at about 10,000 feet above sea level in Ecuador. His London times were about 11 minutes per mile, and those in Ecuador were increased by about one minute to something over 12 minutes. This seems to me to be very fast! Therefore yesterday, after reading that passage, I decided to put on my trekking shoes, but only wearing light clothes, and carrying our GPS navigator I determined my rate of walking.
    Well. I became pretty exhausted after only about 7 kilometers of rapid walking. I was passing all other pedestrians (who admittedly were mostly old people, walking their dogs), and I think I was walking sufficiently rapidly to make them wonder why I was trying to go so fast. Looking at the "trip computer" of the GPS, I see that my average speed was only 5.7 km/hour. Or put another way, this was 10.5 minutes per kilometer! Given that a mile is about 1.61 kilometers, I find Edward Whymper's walking speed to be absolutely incredible! All the more reason to admire him.

Waiting for Sunrise, by William Boyd

    These William Boyd novels are always fun to read. And this was certainly no exception. As always it is a spy novel, this time set in the First World War. But it starts off with the hero, Lysander Rief, in Vienna, in 1913, being psychoanalyzed by an English doctor, resident in the city, who is a disciple - more or less - of Sigmund Freud. The name Lysander seems more than unusual. It reminds me of the English spy plane of World War Two. But our Lysander is a Shakespearean actor of the London stage who has an embarrassing, innermost secret which he divulges to his psychotherapist, Dr. Bensimon. Another one of Dr. Bensimon's patients is the mysterious, attractive, young Hettie Bull. She soon cures Lysander of his problem, and in the process, apparently, becomes pregnant. But out of fear of her boyfriend, Udo Hoff, the Bohemian artist from an established and well-connected Austrian family, Hettie accuses Lysander of raping her. Thus he is thrown into an Austrian jail. He is saved by two mysterious figures from the British Embassy in Vienna who aid him in an escape to Trieste, and then across to Italy.
    Then along comes World War One, and suddenly all these characters take over his life. Even his mother, an Austrian who had migrated to England many years before and was also an actress, seems to be involved. Somebody - a mole in the War Office in London - is sending the Germans and Austrians secret information. Lysander must find out who it is. He is first sent over to Geneva where he meets the recipient of the coded letters, seeking the key which would enable them to be decoded. He applies a short but horrible torture, and the poor man tells Lysander the secret before expiring with an apparent heart attack.
    Back in London he is assigned to the relevant department of the War Office and he begins his search for the mole. The search quickly concentrates on just one or two possible candidates. But then who is behind the mole? Could it be his minders, those two from the Embassy in Vienna? Or even his mother? And then Hettie Bull suddenly turns up in London. She has dumped Udo Hoff, but she has left her baby son, Lothar - assuming he exists at all - with the Hoff family in Vienna, and she has apparently married somebody else who is with her in a cottage in Cornwall. She throws herself at Lysander, telling him how much she still loves him. In the end we have at least a partial resolution of the whole affair. Nevertheless, Miss Bull remains an intriguing mystery.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

    A very sentimental story. Harold Fry, a retired man who lives in a village at the south end of England, in Devon, receives a letter saying hello, and telling him that the sender, a woman named Queenie Hennessy, is in a hospice in the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, at the north end of England, dying from cancer. So he sets off to post a reply, but then just keeps on going with the aim of walking the whole way to her in the hope that he will thereby save her life.
    Along the way he tells us the story of his life and of the dreadful mess his marriage has become. His wife Maureen is at first angry, bitter. But through all the tears and the things he tells us between his sobs we gradually understand what his problem is. And Maureen realizes that she, not Harold, is the problem. At the end, Harold makes it into Berwick-upon-Tweed, half dead, still refusing to wear proper hiking shoes, a changed man. He does not "save" Queenie, who expires soon after he sees her. But Maureen, herself a changed woman, has driven up to Berwick-upon-Tweed to pick up Harold and bring him home, to start life afresh, amidst tears of joy.
    So this book is all about wasted lives, and death. A depressing business. The idea is that people can work their way into some hopeless emotional state, refusing to see a way out, becoming closed to everyone around them. Enveloped in bitterness rather than love. In the middle of his pilgrimage Harold was joined by a crowd of people, all suffering from this sickness. It becomes a circus, leading nowhere. Harold and Maureen emerge renewed, but we suspect that the other members of the circus received little benefit.
    After making my way to the end of this book it seemed to me that the path to a meaningful and fulfilled life should involve walking towards something of true value rather than simply trying to walk away from your problems. Unfortunately, in the case of Harold Fry this was blocked by what had happened in his marriage. So his walk was a matter of breaking away from a hopeless situation.

The Invention of the Jewish People, by Shlomo Sand

    Shlomo Sand is a professor of history at the University of Tel Aviv in Israel, and thus this book was written in the Hebrew language. I wanted to get the English translation, but the German version of Amazon was only offering it at a very inflated price, with much delay. And so I got the German translation in paperback. But the translator seems to have felt obliged to adhere to the tradition of Germanic scholarly writings, producing long, convoluted sentences, consisting of numerous sub-sentences, concluding a number of lines further down the page with the subject, or the object, or something, of the sentence, which we had forgotten about by the time we reached that point. So I found it difficult to wade through the book. Still, given the history of the "Jewish People" - a concept which Shlomo Sand maintains doesn't exist - this German translation may be the more appropriate one.
    There is a somewhat critical review of the book by an English Rabbi in the Guardian here, and a review of another book by Shlomo Sand, also in the Guardian, expanding on the theme here. At first I thought I would write down all the things which are filling my mind after reading the book, but on second thoughts decided against it. The fact is that history, the myths people tell one another, is often the cause of conflicts, suffering. And surely one of the worst sources of these myths, not only for the Jewish people, but for Christians and Muslims as well, has been the bible. Shlomo Sand does a very good job of debunking such things. And he shows the obvious fact that the Palestinians have as much claim as anyone else to be descended from the people who inhabited Palestine in biblical times. In an ideal world, there would be peace in the Middle East. Unfortunately the world is not ideal. But perhaps it could be gradually moved in that direction by historians such as Shlomo Sand.
P.S. Only after writing this have I discovered that the English translation of the book can be freely downloaded here.

Surrounded by Enemies, by Bryce Zabel

    The subtitle of the book is: "What if Kennedy survived Dallas?"
    So it's a kind of novel, or alternative history. I'm a great fan of all those internet sites which investigate the question of who, and how, and why John Kennedy was killed. Is it true that with Kennedy's murder back in 1963, a shift in the forces controlling the USA, some sort of coup by the CIA or whatever, took place? With all the recent revelations about the eavesdropping on all of us by the NSA, how are we to doubt it? It almost seems as if America is on the path to becoming a country controlled by the secret police, rather like communist East Germany, or the Soviet Union.
    This book describes another world with a happier continuation out of 1963. The secret service agent in the car behind the Kennedys notices a glint of steel in the open window of the School Book Depository as the motorcade turns into Elm Street in Dallas. It was a gun, perhaps held by Lee Oswald - who after all was a decent marksman - or more likely held by an expert Mafia or CIA sniper using a more sensible weapon than the Mannlicher Carcano rifle which was later found by the police. In the book, the heroic secret service agent runs quickly to the presidential limousine, throwing himself on top of JFK and holding Jackie down as well. The volley of bullets from all directions kills the agent, and Governor Connally as well. But the presidential pair survives unscathed.
    So what happens from there? According to the book, the country enters a phase of shocked turmoil, lasting for months. Yet this seems to me to be implausible. After all, we had that silly old fool, Ronald Reagan, being shot by the would-be assassin, John Hinkley Jr. on March 30, 1981, shortly after Reagan had been inagurated for his first term in office. The Hinkley family were tied in various ways to the George H.W. Bush family, and the behavior of John Hinkley Jr. seemed to exhibit all the hallmarks of someone who had been subjected to the MKUltra program of the CIA. Did the population of the USA enter into a phase of shocked turmoil following this act? No. The press downplayed everything - after all, Reagan survived - and the people quickly went back to sleep. Ho Hum. Who cares?
    And so I am sure that if Kennedy's assassins had missed in Dallas, then the news would have quickly sunk beneath the daily deluge of celebrity chit chat and scandal. Nobody would have cared.
    Life would have gone on, and according to the book, Kennedy would have made his mark on the subsequent development of history. For one thing, according to the book, the nation would have been spared the Vietnam mess. But - according to the book - he would not have succeeded in getting rid of the CIA, the NSA, and all those other secret police divisions with their ugly three letter abbreviations. Instead they would have soon gotten rid of him, not according to the original plan whereby Kennedy was gunned down in broad daylight for everybody - and very particularly for all future presidents - to see, but rather by the gentler means of impeachment.
    And if anybody was wide open for impeachment, surely it was Kennedy. Not only in the book, but in the real world as well. Why is it that women threw themselves at JFK? I suppose that for many women in those days, he was the greatest sex symbol of all times. And his appetite for all those women was enormous. He just used them as he wanted, and then threw them away. All of the Kennedys were like that. His father as well. And his brothers. J Edgar Hoover kept detailed files, for later use. For example there was Ellen Rometsch, who was probably an East German spy. Or Judith Exner, who was sent to him by the Mafia. And indeed, Marilyn Monroe. A very labile person. A very dangerous situation for her to be caught up with such people as the Kennedys.
    So the story of the book describes a plausible alternative history in which JFK fires J Edgar Hoover, and Hoover sees to it that the moral degeneracy of the Kennedys becomes common knowledge. Thus Kennedy is impeached and removed from office. But before that, LBJ, an even more degenerate person than the Kennedys, is himself removed from office and thrown into (a comfortable) prison. So the Speaker of the House succeeds to the presidency and pardons JFK. Jackie divorces him, but, according to the story, John turns over a new leaf and becomes a respectable person. They get back together again and live happily ever after, or at least until JFK's untimely death at the age of 60 or something, due to his general ill health and drug taking.
    In November of 1963 I was 16 years old. Unlike George H.W. Bush, I can remember exactly where I was when I heard the news of JFK's assassination. Is the real world any worse than the imagined world which would have developed in the last fifty years if Kennedy had survived Dallas? Of course if the Vietnam War had been avoided, many things would have turned out for the better. But on the other hand it is true that no atomic bombs have been used in warfare in the last 50 years. Back in 1963, that seemed to be an extremely unlikely fate for the world. These days nobody thinks about all the thousands of atomic bombs which are stashed away for future use. The impact of a harmless meteorite over Russia has been compared to an atomic bomb. And so I can well imagine that in the next 50 years a number of cities will be casually annihilated by an unthinking, overeager military. But a massive, euphoric religious catharsis, in which a major portion of humanity is burned in a huge atomic holocaust, as envisaged by those old cold-war warriors, seems unlikely. And as for the secret police, even in the story of the book, they succeed in getting rid of Kennedy and controlling the government of the United States. But I am optimistic. Like the Berlin Wall, they have only existed for a much shorter time than we imagine. Back in the 1970s and 80s, people thought that the Wall would last forever. Yet in reality it lasted less than 30 years. The CIA, which was a product of the Second World War, has lasted longer than that. But still it is only 60 or 70 years old, and the disgusting practices it has indulged in have become more and more exposed. I can imagine that it might soon, unexpectedly, collapse under its own weight of corruption and decay.

The Woodlanders, by Thomas Hardy

    According to the Wikipedia article on the book, this was Hardy's own personal favorite. As always, it is concerned with a marriage which has gone wrong. And again, as always, it takes place in the imagined, romantic rural England of Hardy's Wessex, some time in the 19th century. This time the marriage is between Grace, the daughter of the owner of a lumber mill, situated in the backwoods of Wessex, and the young doctor, Fitzpiers, who, for some obscure reason, has decided to try to build up a medical practice in the woods.
    Grace's father, while being a simply educated timber merchant, has sufficient money to have Grace sent to all the best schools, and so she returns to the village with high hopes of a graceful life. She marries Fitzpiers.
    The local squire had died, leaving his young, attractive widow, Mrs. Charmond, a former actress, in charge of things. Fitzpiers, who traces his ancestry to some ancient but decayed local aristocracy, takes his money from Grace's father, but, when considering Mrs. Charmond with all her wealth and airs, he realizes that he has married the wrong woman. This leads to all of the usual catastrophes which we expect to find in a Thomas Hardy novel. I very much enjoyed it.

Instructions for a Heatwave, by Maggie O'Farrell

    The story takes place in the summer of 1976 in England and Ireland. Everything is totally hot and dry. I can't remember what the weather was like back then. I do remember that the summer of 1975, when I first arrived here in Germany, was at first cool, but then it became very hot as well. At the moment everything here is cold and wet. Even this last summer was too cold and wet, as it has been for the past few years. Somehow it seems to me that the weather was more warm and pleasant 30 or 40 years ago when all those climate people were hysterically telling us that the next ice age is upon us. That was much better than the present situation where the weather is cold and we are hysterically being told that the Earth is dying a heat-death.
    But this book is not really concerned with climate studies, or ideas about what to do in order to combat them, or their consequences. Instead it is concerned with a family in England where the parents immigrated from Ireland, I suppose some time in the 1940s or 50s, in order to find work. They were treated badly by the English. The children have now grown up and gotten on with their own lives, not really thinking about this Irish background. The parents have given their youngest daughter a crazy name, namely "Aoife". This is apparently the Irish spelling of the common name "Eve". With a name like that, she has great problems in life. Despite years of schooling, she remains unable to read. When she sees written words, her vision becomes incoherent. The letters swim about, reordering themselves, moving from place to place. I find it difficult to imagine this, but apparently it is a phenomenon which is not so very uncommon. She has removed herself from the family and is currently living in New York, working as a photographers assistant. There is another daughter, and also a son, both of which have great problems in their lives. But the immediate thing that has happened in this heatwave is that the father has disappeared.
    So the family gets together - reluctantly - and thinks about where he might have gone. In fact he has gone back to his dying brother in Ireland who had spent many years in prison, falsely accused of murdering a policeman, and who everybody thought was long since deceased. We learn about the great secret of the marriage of the parents. And the children resolve their problems. Throughout all of the drama we find Aoife to be the most attractive person, despite stumbling over the name each time we see it. It was a good read. Much to be recommended.

Solo, by William Boyd

    This book is subtitled: "A James Bond Novel". That whole James Bond business got completely out of hand with those Hollywood movies, turning it into some sort of "science" fiction, or fantasy business for adolescents. Only occasionally disturbed by a few ridiculous attempts to introduce some sort of irrational plot or other into the "action". Well, as an adolescent I did go to the movies back then in the 1960s and watch Dr. No, and Goldfinger. Weren't we all inspired by Sean Connery's elegant attire, and especially his Aston Martin, cruising beautifully through the Alps? I did see the Peter Sellers spoof of Casino Royale. But then all of those other movies keep turning up on television. I've tried to sit through one or the other of them, but after a few minutes I just give up, switching the channel, or turning the TV off.
    Back then in the adolescent 1960s I did read a couple of the James Bond novels. I can only remember what they were like in the vaguest possible terms. At the back of the present book there is a list of all of the books Ian Fleming wrote; it's surprising how long it is. Anyway, the present book is an attempt by William Boyd to write a new book as if it were just another of the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming. I've enjoyed reading numbers of William Boyd's spy novels, and so I was hoping that this one might be equally good. But it wasn't. The fact of the matter is that William Boyd is a much better writer than was Ian Fleming, and Boyd's attempt to reduce things to Fleming's level simply produces a disappointment.
    Fleming had determined that James Bond was born in 1924, and thus in order to produce a story which is not completely dated, and yet in which James Bond has not yet reached the geriatric stage of life, Boyd places things in the year 1969, where Bond is 45 years old. Well, OK. Given that he keeps himself fit by regular exercise, then I suppose he could perform some of the feats described, such as single-handedly and unarmed, smashing three youthful Washington DC muggers to smithereens on a dark street at night. After all, in the real world, some champion boxers have retained their world titles beyond the age of 40.
    The story itself is concerned with James Bond traveling to a West African country where a civil war is happening, smuggling himself into the rebellious province, causing disruption and thus ending the war to the benefit of everybody. This story is obviously a rather sick parody on the tragic civil war in Nigeria, where Biafra attempted to establish itself as an independent country. The reality is that many of the countries in Africa, such as Nigeria, are monstrosities, created by the European colonial powers (and very particularly England) of the 19th century, drawing lines on maps in ignorance of the actual situation of the peoples living there. I am sure it is true that secret agents were sent by those colonial powers into those countries even after they had gained independence. And even now, France regularly sends its military into Africa. The latest adventure has to do with suppressing the Tuareg peoples. Therefore I was rather repelled by William Boyd's attempt to reproduce Fleming's snobbish cynicism here.
    The African part of the story leaves numbers of loose ends dangling about, and so the story continues with Bond traveling secretly to Washington where he finds that his sexual partner in Africa was, in fact, a CIA agent. They continue their coupling in a motel while the plot develops. The girl - or rather woman, as she is now a mature end 30s something, in order to be on a par with Bond's 45 years of age - is horribly murdered, and Bond takes his revenge. In the end we discover that it is all about a ring of people smuggling heroin into the USA, and their being pursued by the CIA.
    How ridiculous! It is common knowledge that the CIA is itself involved in large-scale drug smuggling. Look at the drug smuggling in the Iran-Contra scandal. Or the Mena Airport business in Arkansas during the Bill Clinton years. And as far as heroin is concerned, one need only glance at the graph of opium poppy production in Afghanistan. There was a crisis in the year 2001 when production dropped to nearly zero. How convenient it was that the "coalition of the willing" invaded the country in 2002, enabling production to reach unprecedented new highs.
    But I see that the English reviewers of the book were very positive. In the same way, reading today's newspaper, I see that the rest of the English press is coming down like a ton of bricks on the Guardian newspaper for their publishing of Edward Snowdon's revelations concerning the secret police of England. All of this is far removed from the naïve juvenile romanticism of the James Bond of the 1950s and 60s.

The Carrier, by Sophie Hannah

    It was at first difficult to get into the story. The book starts out with a number of disjointed chapters, describing various things in various ways with lots of dialogue seemingly unrelated to the dialogue we had just gone through in the previous chapter. Lots of names to remember. What relationships do all these characters have to one another? Is it necessary to draw some sort of tedious diagram just to keep track of things?
    But after 50 or 100 pages, the story gradually becomes clear. It is a "Who done it?..." murder mystery, following the classical tradition. We have an ancient manor house (or in this case an expansive minor house next to the true manor) set in the English countryside, filled with a collection of strange people, one of which has been murdered. So the question is... who done it? The story is told mainly through the perspective of Gaby, who wasn't in the house at the time of the murder, but who nevertheless has intimate relations with the people who were, and also we have the viewpoints of the various police men and women.
    The situation is that one of the people, namely Tim, has confessed to the murder, but neither Gaby nor most of the police believe that Tim did it. So why is Tim sitting happily in a prison cell, apparently being punished for something he didn't do? The murder victim was Tim's wife, Lauren, who has suffered a stroke and was then suffering from "locked-in" syndrome. A human vegetable, unable to move or communicate. A horrible thing. Did Tim do it in order to release Lauren from her suffering?
    But we gradually learn that before she had her stroke, Lauren was a monster, terrorizing Tim and everybody else with her psycho tricks, making life a misery for everybody around her. We learn that Gaby was, and still is, totally in love with Tim, and also Tim was and is in love with Gaby, even before he married the horrible Lauren. So why did he marry Lauren in the first place, rather than Gaby? This question wasn't really answered in the book, except perhaps by saying that Tim was himself a weak, distorted, and totally inadequate personality.
    I suppose the idea of these murder mysteries is to play around with all sorts of psychological thoughts involving a closed group of people - and also with the psychology of the various personalities in the police department who must investigate the crime. Are people really like this?
    For me, the relationships between Gaby, Tim and Lauren seemed to be absurdly implausible.

And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini

    To me, this was a more satisfying book than The Kite Runner. I haven't read Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns, which came between the Kite Runner and this one.
    Of course all of Hosseini's books are concerned with Afghanistan. He himself left Afghanistan as a child, immigrating with his well-to-do parents to the USA where he is now a citizen. Nevertheless, we have the feeling that he thinks of himself as an Afghan, rather than an American. After all, otherwise his novels would be concerned with life in America.
    For the USA, Afghanistan is a big problem. The first narrative we had was that that modern day, Arabian, Emmanuel Goldstein (of Orwell's 1984 fame), that is to say, Osama Bin Laden, was holed up in Afghanistan in a cave, or something, and we had to "git 'em", "smoke 'em out", in the immortal words of George W. Bush. So the country was bombed to smithereens, and "our side", namely the war lords of the Northern Alliance, triumphed over the evil Islamic Taliban. Unfortunately though, our Emmanuel Goldstein drifted into a place called "Tora Bora" - which sounds to me more like a peaceful South Pacific island - and then into the wild Tribal Lands of Western Pakistan. The impotent George W. Bush, and his even more impotent successor, Obama, thus resorted to the weapons of the cowardly, namely unmanned drones. All this is undoubtedly stirring up even more trouble than before, which may be good for the purveyors of the "War on Terror", but it is certainly bad for all the rest of us.
    The second narrative was that the situation in Afghanistan is rather like the novel Lord of the Flies, by William Golding. According to this second narrative, when left to their own in isolation, the people of Afghanistan degenerate into violent, evil behavior. Women must cover themselves in their degrading burkas. They are raped, beaten, forced to cower in their hovels, illiterate. Men, when not tormenting women, arm themselves with rifles, bayonets, knives. They fight amongst themselves and generally fill their minds with religious intolerance. And thus, as in the happy ending of the Lord of the Flies, the Grownups, represented here by the USA, have the difficult role of bringing law and order into this chaos.
    I had the feeling that in The Kite Runner, Hosseini, as a citizen of the USA, was - at least to some degree - telling us this second narrative. It was an overwhelming emotional outburst. But despite this, the idea of the USA playing the role of the Grownups of the world seemed to me to be absurd.
    The present book starts out in the 1940s and 50s when neither the Russians, nor the Americans, nor the Taliban were causing trouble. (Admittedly, The Kite Runner also starts off in this bygone era of peace and hope.) We find a civilized Afghanistan, with families going on about their business, undisturbed by the evil intentions of outsiders. A lonely, well-to-do man, living in a generous house in Kabul, has secret homosexual feelings, longing for his chauffeur. But the chauffeur is totally unaware of this. The man marries an elegant young woman from an even more well-to-do family. But the woman has had an illness, rendering her incapable of having children. She has great literary ambitions. She is lonely in this elegant, meaningless, sheltered, too civilized life of Kabul. The chauffeur secretly loves her, and perhaps she also loves him a little. In order to help her fill the emptiness of her life, the chauffeur suggests that she adopt a small girl, Pari, his niece, who lives in poverty in a village some distance from Kabul. And so Pari begins growing up with her new family and loses all memory of the old. Her new "mother" moves with her to Paris, where Pari lives the life of a French woman, becoming a professor of mathematics in a Parisian university. Her mother gradually discards Pari and becomes an important figure in the Paris literary scene. Back in Kabul, the lonely man has a stroke and, after years of lingering on, dies, bequeathing everything to his chauffeur who lives in the house, enduring the Russians, the Americans and the Taliban. Pari's lost family from the village has been scattered to refugee camps in Pakistan. Some return to find things stolen by a violent War Lord whose riches are based on opium.
    And so the book tells the stories of all of these people and their children, as they grow old. In the end, Pari finds what is left of her real family. The tragedy of Afghanistan has scattered some of them across California and Europe. A deep, absorbing novel.

Catriona, by Robert Louis Stevenson

    I had run out of things to read. Rather than going into town to look for something in the bookshop, through all this gray winter drizzle, facing the crowds of Christmas shoppers, I thought the simplest plan would be to just click into Gutenberg.org and find something there to read on my Kindle. Robert Louis Stevenson is always good, and this book was entitled "David Balfour, Second Part". This sounded new to me, and I didn't know what "David Balfour, First Part" was either. So I started reading it. (Just assuming that it was OK to skip the unknown First Part.)
    The good thing about the Kindle is that you can select a comfortable level of magnification, for old people with bad eyes, such as me. The bad thing is that footnotes are very awkward to deal with on the Kindle. You can't just glance down quickly to the bottom of the page and then resume reading after satisfying that momentary instant of curiosity. Instead it's a complicated operation which disrupts the story, spending lots of time searching around for where to resume things in the text. Or if the notes are in the back of the book, perhaps in a glossary, then the Kindle is utterly hopeless. Not like a real book where you can just keep your finger on the page while flipping to the back for a quick look.
    This was a problem in the present instance owing to the fact that the book is filled with the dialogue of various Scottish characters, speaking their partially incomprehensible local dialect of the English language. In order to convey this local color, Stevenson created a kind of Pidgin English containing hundreds of words which - I presume - are not found in the OED. (Or maybe they do include them, since they are included in this book.) Thus the Kindle edition which I was reading was filled with footnotes, undoubtedly giving, in each case, the relevant translation into terms comprehensible to normal people like me. I just tried pushing through, trying to ignore the incomprehensible words and their footnotes, hoping to gain a vague idea of the gist of the dialogue.
    The book seemed familiar in a forgotten sort of way. I soon realized that the real title of the book is "Catriona", and not "David Balfour, Second Part". It is a mystery to me why the Gutenberg people publish it under this title. In fact the book itself has two parts. The first part, which might be absurdly called "David Balfour, Second Part: The First Part", is a kind of boy's adventure story. Then the Second Part is the love story of David Balfour and Catriona, which was very nice to read.
    By the time I got to the second part I began to think I had read all of this before. Searching around the bookshelves here in my study, stirring up clouds of old dust, I discovered my copy of Catriona in its pristine condition, protected by its slipcover, beautifully produced by the Folio Society back in 1988. And near it on the same shelf was the companion volume of "Kidnapped", also produced back then, and which I suppose Gutenberg.org must refer to as "David Balfour, First Part". I had completely forgotten them. So you see, it is helpful to make a note of what you read, as here, in order to be able to refer back to it in future years when the memory fades. From this little experience, it would seem that my memory for such things only lasts about 25 years.
    And so I (re-)read the book to its end on real paper, but without footnotes, which the Folio Society doesn't really approve of. Instead they included a glossary at the end which you can easily refer to, keeping your place by holding a finger on the page. Unfortunately they chose a rather small typeface when they produced the book in 1988, which I'm sure was no problem for me back then, but now I had to use my other reading glasses which are better for looking more closely at things. Also the Folio Society edition has a very informative Introduction, explaining much about the historical setting for the story.

One Day, by David Nicholls

    This is a very sentimental love story. From the blurbs on the cover of this paperback edition, the reviewers all seem to have been overwhelmed. I also read the book almost in one go, wiping the tears occasionally. So I must admit that I love books like this.
     The lovers are Dexter and Emma, or, as they refer to themselves, Dex and Em. But rather than just getting together and having a wonderful life as any sensible people would do, they continually make a mess of things, repelling one another repeatedly over 15 years in order to fill themselves with regrets. When they finally do get together at the end of the book, David Nicholls kills off poor old Em by having her riding her bicycle through London traffic in a rain storm, being hit by a car. This gave me a total shock, as it did the poor Dex, and he sank into alcoholic depression. But then we are told that he is eventually able to get himself together and continue on with life. So that's OK.
    The basic structure of the book is given by relating what is happening on 15th of July - which apparently is St. Swithin's day, whatever that is - in each of the years from 1988, when Dex and Em first get together after graduating from The University of Edinburgh, up until the year 2007, where we see that Dex is recovering after 3 years of tragedy. (Em died on St. Swithin's Day, 2004.) Perhaps I'm spoiling the plot for potential readers of this book, since the death of Em does come as such a shock.
    Anyway, I had the feeling that those newspaper reviewers may have been so moved by the story owing to the fact(?) that it reflected their own lives. Going to endless, meaningless parties. Drinking to excess. Seeking the meaning of life. Scoffing at convention. Thinking with horror of the possibility of reaching the age of 40 with a loving spouse, a family and children, and calling one another "darling".
    And so Dex sleeps with scores of beautiful young women - not Em. Despite this, he only produces one offspring, resulting in a strangely old-fashioned shotgun marriage to Sylvie, whose family is one of these snooty, posh, English types, whose wealth was undoubtedly based on Mrs. Thatcher's degeneracy.
    For me, the meaning of life is not this. In the end it is the realization that life is meaningless. But still, if we do not squander our lives in the way Em and Dex have done, then at least we can achieve happiness.