Carlos Ruiz Zafon:
Watcher in the Shadows
Mozart wacht auf
Sense of an Ending
All That Is
The Gods of
John le Carré:
Mysterious Affair at Styles
Jerome K. Jerome:
in a Boat
A Long Way Down
Martin Cruz Smith:
The Carp Castle
How to be Good
J. Bernard Walker:
The Way We Live
The Lone Gladio
The Narrow Road to the
The author is the Director of the British
Museum, and he previously wrote A History of the World in 100
Objects, which I read a while ago. The idea of this book is
similar. Lots of short chapters, each of which is concerned with
some particular object, together with illustrations and a
description of the relevance of that object to the subject at hand.
In the present book, the objects he chooses are all concerned with
giving us a picture of what life must have been like in the London
of Shakespeare's day.
Well, I'm certainly glad to be living in the
present time, in modern Europe. Back in those Shakespearean days,
life was totally corrupted by religion. In fact MacGregor tells us
that it was a serious crime in England to avoid attending the church
on Sundays. The torture of both people and animals was rampant. When
walking across London Bridge to Southwark and the Globe Theater,
people would pass rows of decapitated heads impaled on spikes,
reminding them of the consequences of deviant behavior. All
gentlemen wore swords and daggers, and they had to be prepared to
use them. The art of swordsmanship was studied to a high level of
accomplishment, and the audiences of those Shakespearean dramas were
entertained by actors who could handle these weapons in a
Having a look in the bookshop in town, I
noticed this one and remembered enjoying Zafon's other book of
"shadows": The Shadow of the Wind. Of course a shadow is
really nothing. It is the lack of light, where we might
otherwise have expected to see it, owing to the obstruction of the
light by some object which is blocking it. Still, when observing
one's own shadow we see ourselves in outline, or in profile. And so
the shadow might take on a life of its own in the imagination.
Reading the introduction at the beginning of the
book, which is framed as a kind of letter to the reader, ending with
the salutation, "Happy travels", and signed by the author, we
discover that he wrote it as a children's book, although he hopes
that grownups might also enjoy it. I hadn't expected a children's
book. Still, I know numbers of grownup people who are not
embarrassed to admit that they have read Harry Potter novels.
There are some grownups in this book, although
the main characters are teenaged, falling in love with one another,
and in the meantime facing horrible magic monsters which appear in
the form of dark clouds, or apparitions; the evil, disjointed souls
of poor people who have pledged them to a kind of devil. I enjoyed
the story. Simple, innocent, childish language, not to be compared
with the complexities of the children's stories of Robert Louis
This book was first published in 1925. An
English colonial drama. The heroine is Kitty who grew up in England,
the favored daughter of an ambitious mother who was dissatisfied
with the social position of Kitty's father, who, after all, was a
judge in the English judiciary. Kitty was considered to be
beautiful, and her scheming mother saw the possibility of
advancement if Kitty would only grab any one of the many eligible
suitors surrounding her in the parties of 1920s London. But Kitty
couldn't be bothered. The mother's frustration turned to
indifference and perhaps rejection when unexpectedly, Kitty's dowdy
sister married a man with the absurd title of "baronet" (which I've
discussed elsewhere here). Thus, in order to marry as quickly as her
sister, Kitty grabs Walter, the person who happens to be her present
suitor, and marries him despite the fact that she finds him to be
dull and boring. He was interested in scientific things, a
bacteriologist. And he was on holiday from his work in the British
Colony of Hong Kong.
So they sailed across the world to Hong Kong, and
the book starts off with a description of Kitty entertaining her new
lover, Charles Townsend, an up and coming party-goer in the colony,
in her spacious Hong Kong bedroom. In fact, Townsend is such a good
entertainer that it is thought that he might become the new governor
of the colony. Boring old Walter is presumably toiling away in his
laboratory. But Kitty and Charles hear someone trying to open the
locked bedroom door. Is it Walter? Surely not. Kitty is all of a
flutter, but Charles remains calm and suave. He leaves to return to
his important entertainments in the administrative realms of the
Kitty's thoughts range wildly from one thing to
the next. Surely it would be a good thing if everything came out
into the open. It would clear the air. She would get a divorce and
marry her true love, Townsend. But Walter is not as dull as she
thinks (despite the fact that he continues to love such a silly
woman as Kitty). He treats her coldly. He knows that Townsend will
never divorce his wife. After all, Townsend considers his wife to be
an ideal companion for his cocktail parties and other sundry
entertainments. And a divorce would be a scandal which would do
damage to his brilliant career.
Walter tells Kitty that he intends to penetrate
into the deep interior of China to a place where a cholera epidemic
is taking place in order to help the people there. Kitty can either
accompany him, or else she can see what she can get out of Charles
Townsend. Kitty rushes to her lover, causing him some embarrassment
by interrupting some sort of entertainment he happens to be engaging
in at his offices. She blurts out her plan to marry him, but he
calmly tells her not to be so hysterical. After all, everybody
sleeps around with everybody else, but of course nobody wants a
Thus Kitty is transported into the heart of
deepest China with Walter, into the face of death and disease. Will
she die? Does Walter hate her? Does she hate Charles Townsend? Does
she hate herself?
She finds a convent of French nuns who are doing
their Good Works amongst the primitive masses of sick Chinese
people, and so she spends her time with them, despite the fact that
they are catholic, while she is - of course - Church of England. In
the end, Walter succumbs to the disease and dies, and the head nun
tells her to return to her mother (that dreadful woman) in England.
She does, to find that her mother has, happily, died. The father is
about to set off to a new judicial posting in Bermuda. He pretends
to be sad about the loss of his wife, but in reality he is euphoric
about the release from all these horrible family burdens under which
he has suffered for many, many years. Kitty asks him if she can go
with him to his new life in Bermuda. He says yes, but it is clear
that this is a dreadful blow for him. His new life is about to be
ruined again by that horrible daughter Kitty. But she shows him that
she has turned over a new leaf with all her newly found religious
feelings, so that the book ends happily with father and daughter
heading off into the beautiful Bermudian sunset.
Well, it was an enjoyable read. I was amused by
Somerset Maugham's descriptions of the Chinese. I suppose it
typifies the English attitude of those days. Kitty and Walter suffer
during the long journey into the dark heart of China despite the
fact that they are carried the whole way comfortably in sedan
chairs! When they arrive at their destination, they are
greeted by an Englishman who has gone native, marrying a local
woman, but who is supposed to be a colonial customs inspector. I am
no expert on the history of British colonialism, but I find it
difficult to imagine that it extended far into the backwoods of
China. And I was surprised by Maugham's choice of cholera as the
disease for this novel. Surely he, as a qualified medical doctor,
knew that if you boiled the water and avoided uncooked food, there
would be no danger. And finally it is amusing to imagine what a
modern Chinese would think about these quaintly racist novels of
Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson
Having just recently reread Catriona,
and realized that after 25 years I had completely forgotten what it
was all about, it only made sense to reread Kidnapped as
well. And again, I find that I had completely forgotten the story. I
enjoyed this one more than Catriona, although that might be
due to the fact that I have read them in the wrong order. It was
more coherent, straightforward, with the action developing naturally
from one episode to the next. But I can understand the fact that
some students of literature prefer Catriona, with its
difficult questions of moral judgements.
Pompeii, by Robert Harris
This is an historical novel about the
destruction of the town of Pompeii in the year 79 AD, following the
eruption of Mount
Vesuvius, together with the story of Pliny and
his nephew Pliny the
Younger. The author uses this whole framework in order to give
us drastic descriptions of the cruelty and depravity of ancient
Rome, together with a nice little love story.
Things start off with the arrival of a character
named Attilius in the town of Misenum, which is at the northern end
of the Bay of Naples. He has been sent from Rome to take charge of
Augusta. This is a long aqueduct whose waters stemed from the
mountains south and east of Naples, and which snaked around behind
Vesuvius, distributing the water to all the towns along the bay and
to a couple of further places to the east and north of the mountain.
The person who had been in charge of the aqueduct has mysteriously
disappeared. Almost immediately, Attilius is confronted with the
problem that the water has taken on a strong, poisonous smell of
sulfur. Soon it stops flowing all together. What is the problem? In
fact this is a huge problem, owing to the fact that half of these
Romans seem to spend their time in their baths, or swimming pools,
or fountains, trying to escape the oppressive heat of a hot
Mediterranean summer. The other half (or perhaps 3/4, or 4/5, or
even more of the population) are slaves, toiling away in the heat.
Therefore Attilius gathers together the company of slaves at his
disposal and sets off to find the leak in the aqueduct.
He meets Pliny, the commander of the naval base
at Misenum, and Attilius convinces him to provide a ship, propelled
by hundreds of oarsmen, who, if not slaves, at least live in
slave-like conditions. The drummer below deck giving the tempo of
the stroke, and presumably the strokes of the whip (although they
are not mentioned in this novel) ensures a quick passage across the
bay over to Pompeii. There, Attilius tries to organize things for
his expedition out to the aqueduct around the back of Vesuvius. This
brings him into intimate contact with Ampliatus, a former slave who
has obtained freedom, but through ruthless practices has acquired
immense wealth, owning half the town of Pompeii and various opulent
villas in other towns along the coast as well. Ampliatus is a
monster, and so the reader is subjected to an orgy of vulgar,
disgusting sexual and culinary practices. But, of course, the
monster has a beautiful, young, innocent daughter, Corelia, who is
about to be sacrificed on the marriage alter to a fat, degenerate
man, the earlier slave owner of Ampliatus, in order to humiliate
him. (The children of former slaves were considered to be lower down
on the social hierarchy than the children of non-slaves.)
Well, our hero, Attilius sees all this mess,
sympathizes, and even falls hopelessly in love with Corelia. But
eventually, after fighting off renegade slaves and other brutalized
elements in Pompeii, he sets out into the country in order to repair
the aqueduct. He finds the problem. It is a surprisingly small
break, caused by the movements of the magma beneath the earth. His
troop of slaves repairs things and he sends them off, back to
Pompeii. And then, after further degenerate dramas, the eruption of
Vesuvius finally gets started. In the end, Attilius finds his way
back to Pompeii in order to save Corelia, they take refuge in the
cistern there and so survive the deadly pyroclastic flow which
destroyed the town.
A fast paced novel. I had thought that Pompeii
must have been consumed in the initial explosion of Vesuvius. After
all, looking at the film of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, we see
that half of it seemed to slide down under gravity, opening up a
huge space for the magma to explode under the pressure of the
released gasses. But it seems that Vesuvius erupted differently. It
was rather like a huge chimney, alternately spewing rocks, then
after a pause, hot gasses. In this way, most of the inhabitants of
Pompeii and Herculaneum had time to escape elsewhere to safety.
Tolstoy lived from 1828 to 1910. More or
less the time of Thomas Hardy. But what a difference! Count Lev
Nikolayevich Tolstoy was a member of the Russian aristocracy, and so
all of the characters in this book are princes and princesses,
counts, countesses, generals, and what have you. The "peasants" and
the house servants drift in and out of things as a general servile
background to the whole narration.
And yet when we read about the life of Tolstoy,
we see that he considered the privileges of the aristocracy to be an
evil. He was a pacifist whose book The Kingdom of God is
Within You inspired Mahatma Ghandi to leave his law practice
in South Africa and travel to India to preach the cause of
Tolstoy lived a simple life on the land, and the
character Levin in this novel - Tolstoy's alter-ego - goes on for
many pages, philosophizing about the virtues of the peasants of
Russia. When looking at photos of Tolstoy back in those days, 150
years ago, we see the proud aristocrat, slightly apart, dominating
the others in his haloed circle. How fortunate it was that he lived
when he did rather than in the period 1840-1928, which was the life
of Thomas Hardy. He was spared the Russian Revolution and the
horrors of communism with its millions of murders, tortures, ruined
lives. If it had not been for the evil of the First World War, would
it have been possible to bring Russia into the modern age without a
revolution, following Tolstoy's philosophy? Certainly the world
would then be a better place. But the difference between Tolstoy's
writing and (because I'm thinking about it just now) that of Hardy,
tells a different story. For Hardy, an Englishman, the aristocracy
is long dead. The "peasants" are the real people. They are not even
peasants. They are everybody - you and me. And they are concerned
with all the problems of agriculture in the 19th century. But in
this book of Tolstoy, the real, noble, aristocratic people live in
Moscow and Saint Petersburg. The money flows in some abstract way
from their lands which they sometimes visit for a few weeks in the
summer on vacation. They find Levin to be a rather strange, but
charmingly eccentric character, living on his country estate and
reducing himself to the practical problems of farming.
I downloaded the book from Gutenberg.org and read
it on my Kindle. It took a long time to read, but still, the story
develops from page to page and we are always curious to find out
what happens next, despite the fact that it is obvious what the fate
of the various characters will be in the end. As I understand it,
printed editions of the novel run to over a thousand pages of close
The story is concerned with all the problems
which can arise in the institution of marriage, at least as it was
practiced by the Russian aristocracy. We have Anna Karenina who
disliked her husband, Count Karenina. So she falls madly in love
with Count Vronsky, a dashing, rich young officer. But Count
Karenina refuses to give Anna a divorce. Anna becomes a "fallen
woman" in the eyes of some of the aristocracy. Vronsky, who we at
first considered to be a shallow cad, develops unexpected virtues.
Nevertheless, that does not hinder the doom of Anna and the despair
of both Vronski and Karenina. This tragedy is contrasted with the
pure, simple virtues of Kitty and Levin who fall hopelessly in love
with one another, marry in an opulent blaze of orthodox church
splendor, retire to the paradise of the Russian countryside, raise
beautiful children, and live happily ever after.
At the end of the book Levin goes on for pages,
explaining to us in great detail the basis of his religious belief.
In a nutshell, it is the following. According to the primitive view
of the evolution of species which people had in those days,
everything was determined by the "fight for survival". Thus only the
strongest, most aggressive, most "evil" characters would, in the
course of raw nature, predominate. Yet many people do "good",
apparently through inexplicably altruistic motives. What could be
the source of this goodness which would seem to contradict the
brutal "laws of nature"? According to Tolstoy, in the voice of
Levin, this could only be due to the presence of God in the world.
Of course the fallacy of this argument has been
described in innumerable books, articles, TV programs, and what have
you, perhaps most famously in Richard Dawkins "The Selfish
Gene". The mathematical modelling which demonstrates the
reasons for altruistic behavior are sketched in this
article in the Wikipedia, and more particularly in the book Games
of Life, by Karl Sigmund.
Despite this, even today the established church
still seems to cling to this simple argument of Tolstoy's Levin. We
might smile at the harmless nature of this misunderstanding if it
were not for the fact that the church itself is the source of much
of the evil in the world.
I don't think this book has been translated
into English. Martin Suter is Swiss. He has a very pleasant style of
writing, full of fun. Different from most things which seem to be
written in the German language.
The story here is that a young (33 year old)
journalist, Fabio, wakes up in a hospital in some Swiss town,
presumably Zürich, to discover that he has no memory of the last 50
days or so. Namely a couple of weeks before and after he had
suffered a severe head injury. Somebody must have hit him. So he
tries to regain his life, finding that before his injury, for some
reason which he tries to understand, he had changed, become a person
unrecognizable to his "normal" self. His old girlfriend had left
him, disgusted by what he had been doing. Not just with his new
girlfriend. All of this, gradually finding out what happened in the
missing time, makes for an entertaining story. What Fabio finds out
is that he was researching a scandal about BSE.
Do you remember BSE? or "Mad Cow Disease"? That
was back then in the year 2002 or so when this book was first
published. I see that the Wikipedia
article on BSE still seems to take it seriously. It is thought
that BSE is caused by prions.
That is to say that whereas a protein is a large molecule whose
function is determined by the manner in which it folds in upon
itself, making a big clump, a prion is essentially the same
molecule, but folded in a somewhat different, abnormal way,
producing something which doesn't function properly. If too many of
the proteins in the body are abnormally folded, then things get out
of control. The person, or animal, succumbs to one of these prion
diseases. Kreutzfeldt-Jakob. Kuru. And what have you.
So why do these proteins fold wrongly in someone
who falls victim to such a disease? According to the accepted
theory, the falsely folded prions get into contact with properly
folded proteins, and in some way the normally folded proteins are
thus forced to fold themselves falsely. Something like a crystal
structure attracting new atoms onto the crystal, following the given
pattern. Or something. Seems very complicated to me. I can't imagine
how that is supposed to work. Anyway, this is the basis of Martin
Suter's present story. Namely, as we all know, apart from the
mountains, Switzerland is a land of chocolate. And chocolate has
lots of milk in it. So the idea is that it is contaminated with
minute amounts of these prions. Therefore all the people in the
world who eat Swiss chocolate will gradually have their proteins
converted to evil prions and they will eventually - perhaps before
the world ends when the sky falls down upon us due to global warming
- die of Kreutzfeldt-Jakob disease. How dreadful.
In contrast to such nebulous catastrophe
theories, back then in the year 2002 I did read something that made
sense to me. The fact of the matter was that BSE was largely
confined to England, with a small outburst in Switzerland as well.
An "organic" dairy farmer in England wrote that the reason his cows
didn't get BSE was that he refused to douse them with some
particular chemicals which the English agricultural authorities
prescribed as a treatment against some sort of cow worm, or
something. A few of those Swiss farmers were doing it as well. I've
forgotten the details. But as we know, the pharmaceutical companies
swim in money, directing large flows of it into the lobbying of
politicians and the media. The theory of the organic dairy farmer,
who existed independently of this whole drug culture, was that it
was the drugs which were causing the proteins to fold abnormally
into prions. Thus, far from being the cause of these
diseases, prions are the disease-bringing symptoms. This
seems to me to be a far more sensible explanation. A cow which eats
real grass which has not been poisoned with pesticides is obviously
going to be more healthy than one doused in poison and fed unnatural
foods. The same for people who avoid the unnatural foods and
lifestyles of modern times.
And so these ideas distracted me from enjoying
the adventure story of the book.
This one has also not been translated into
English. But it was a fun read. It is the first novel of Eva
Baronsky. The book begins with Wolfgang Mozart lying critically ill,
on the point of death on the 5th of December, 1791. He is 35 years
old. He has received a commission to compose a requiem mass from the
Franz von Walsegg in memory of the Count's deceased wife Anna.
Yet Mozart's Requiem
is unfinished. And so Wolfgang Mozart lapses away.
Into oblivion?...... No!
Suddenly he wakes up in a strange room. Is this
Heaven? Has the Lord given him a respite in order to finish the
Requiem? The room contains a bed which he had been lying on, a table
and chair of a strange construction. He finds beautifully perfect
paper, and other objects made of some unknown, colorful material. He
finds no ink, and no quill pens. But he does find an object which
leaves a line on paper as if it were ink. It continues to magically
write on and on, never having to be dipped in an ink well. And so
Wolfgang sets to work, writing out the continuation of his Requiem,
toiling on for hour after hour.
What has happened is that Mozart has been
transported 215 years into the future, into the Vienna of the year
2006. Is this possible? Well, in principle it is certainly not
impossible. Traveling backwards in time is impossible from a
logical point of view. But forwards...
Of course we all know that according to Einstein
if you get into a spaceship and zoom away and back quickly then it
would be as if you had jumped forward in time relative to the people
on the earth. But being slightly - and only slightly - less
implausible, there are people who believe that if you freeze
yourself, then after years of hibernation you might be awakened into
the world of the future. Indeed, as a student of mathematics in
Canberra in the 1970s I got to know Tom
Donaldson, an American on the Faculty who was President of the
Australian Cryogenics Association. He had himself frozen in the year
2006 with the expectation of living on in our world some time in the
And so in the book, suddenly a strange young man
comes into Wolfgang's room, speaking in a bewildering way. Is he an
Angel, sent to accompany Wolfgang along the path to eternity?
Strangely enough, this apparition is not
interested in the progress Wolfgang has made on his Requiem. He
tells him that he had some sort of an accident, and he was brought
into this room to recover. The man offers to drive him home.
Wolfgang tells him that he lives in the Rauhensteingasse, number 8.
He is led downstairs and is astonished to find that the streets of
Vienna seem to be composed of some sort of strange, smooth black
stone. There are no horses. Chariots with no visible means of
propulsion race along these streets at breakneck speeds with loud
roaring noises. He finds the chair within the chariot of his
companion to be surprisingly comfortable, yet he hangs on for dear
life as he is transported to the Rauhensteingasse street. But his
house is not there!
And so the story develops. He is thankful to find
St. Stephan's Cathedral still as he remembers it, but everything
around it has changed. Hoards of people in strange clothing rush
about. On the ground, he sees that there are brass plates with names
written on them. And his name is written there as well! He enters
the cathedral and goes to a confessional. He hopes the priest might
explain to him why his name is written on the street and in other
places around the cathedral. But the priest dismisses him as if he
were a sad lunatic.
Gradually he realizes his situation. He assumes a
false name - Wolfgang Musterman. He hooks up with a Polish street
musician who plays the violin, helping him by playing on the piano
in a pub. He is astonished to encounter CDs, and he listens to all
the music of the Future: Brahms, Schubert (which he likes),
Tchaikovsky, Mahler, and so forth. When he plays in pubs with his
great improvisations on all these themes of the future, people are
overwhelmed. He ends up becoming the star attraction at the popular
jazz club, the Blue Note.
He falls in love. But then he makes the mistake
of confessing the truth to his girlfriend, namely that his is not
Wolfgang Musterman, but really Wolfgang Mozart. She is horrified
that the person she loves is insane, throwing him out into the
lonely night. Wolfgang is devastated. He staggers onto the road and
is hit by a car. The ambulance people come and take him to hospital.
What is his name? What is his insurance number? He tells them the
truth, and eventually he is transported to a psychiatric hospital.
And then, in the final scene, he seems to have
returned to his bed in the Vienna of 1791 with his wife Constanze at
his side. Was it all a dream?
I downloaded this from Gutenberg.org to
read on my Kindle, but to be honest, at the 60 or 70% mark I lost
interest and gave up. Half of the stories in the book were obviously
ridiculous tall stories, meant as humor. It was based on Mark
Twain's real-life adventures out in the Wild West in the years
1861-66. Yet I wanted to know how he - Samuel Clemens - avoided the
horrible Civil War which was raging in the East in those days. Was
he a draft-dodger? Was there even a draft? The Civil War is not even
mentioned in this book!
The book begins with his trip out to the Nevada
Territory via stagecoach. We read the long-winded tall stories he
has gathered along the way. In Nevada he tries his hand at mining.
Silver and gold were the big things back then before the modern-day
adoption of virtual money. He ends up at the town of Virgina City.
Old people like me might remember watching the TV
program Bonanza back then in the 1950s and 60s on black and
white television sets, with the signal fading in and out, producing
a grainy, snowy effect on the screen. Lorn Green was "Pa". And then
there was Hoss and Little John. I've forgotten the name of the other
character. Occasionally they went in to town, namely to Virginia
City. Somehow, watching Bonanza, it seemed to me that Virgina City
must have been the same as Dodge City, or Tombstone, Arizona.
Whatever. All that Wild West stuff. Flat, dry country with sagebrush
and tumbleweed tumbling about.
So it was interesting to read Mark Twain's
account of real-life
Virginia City in the "flush times". Virginia City sat right on
top of the Comstock Lode, a huge deposit of silver and gold. Mark
Twain took a job on one of the local papers, and in doing so,
adopted his pseudonym. He tells stories of how people went crazy
with all the money coming out of the ground. All the details of the
mine, how the town functioned. A fascinating story. But then the
tall stories became tedious and I stopped, having found more
interesting things to read at the bookshop in town.
This was a much better story than his
earlier book, "Before She Met Me", which I read some time
ago. In fact this one won the Booker prize in 2011. But I didn't
think it was that good.
It's the story of Tony Webster, starting off in
his pretentious, overly intellectualized English private school,
exchanging silly philosophical observations with his three pals. The
smartest of them, not Tony, but rather Adrian, goes to university at
Cambridge. Tony goes to the somewhat less exalted Bristol
This is the 1960s. Tony observes that although
the 1960s in the popular imagination were free and swinging, in
reality, for most people, that only started happening in the 1970s.
Tony aquires a girlfriend, Veronica. They are together for a year or
so. He would like to have "full sex" with her, but it doesn't
happen. Or rather they break up, and then have a "one night stand"
where they do go all the way, after which Tony tells Veronica that
they really have broken up. Veronica takes it badly. Later Tony
hears that Veronica has gotten together with Adrian over in
Cambridge. This upsets Tony, since he had considered Adrian to be
his best friend. In a juvenile, half drunken mood, he writes a nasty
letter to them, wishing them all the worst, including a malformed,
The years pass. Tony has lost contact with his
school pals. He has married Margaret and had a daughter who herself
is married with children. Years ago, Margaret left him in order to
marry a more interesting man. But despite this, Tony and Margaret
are still friends. Tony is now a pensioner. Suddenly he receives a
letter from a solicitor informing him that Veronica's mother has
died and bequeathed him the diary of Adrian. Yet Veronica has taken
it and refuses to hand it out to Tony. Instead she sends him a copy
of his horrible letter.
What is in the diary? What has happened with
Veronica, Adrian, and Veronica's mother? I won't reveal the ending
in order not to spoil the book for anybody who happens to read this.
Ian McEwan writes very smoothly, so it's a
pleasure to read what he writes. On the other hand, as is often the
case, in the end we are disappointed. The book starts out with a
character named Serena Frome telling us that 40 years ago, back in
the 1970s when she was a beautiful young woman, she was a spy in
London, working for MI5.
Now I'm not really clear about all these English
spying organizations. From the book it seems clear that MI5 is
involved in spying on the English themselves, rather like the Stasi
in the former East Germany, while MI6 is supposed to spy on
foreigners, like the CIA is supposed to do for the United States.
But what about MI4, 3,... whatever? Do they also exist, or have
these spies simply started off numbering their units with numbers
higher than one, like Boeing and Airbus and so forth. Then there is
GCHQ - whatever that is supposed to stand for. It is the popular
thing to hate at the moment. I am sure that GCHQ, and also NSA are
eagerly lapping up everything I am typing into my computer just now.
All the computers in their gigantic buildings are whirring away,
digesting with the help of all sorts of algorithms the question
about whether or not what I am writing should be interpreted as the
work of a "bad guy", or simply the random scribblings (or rather
twitches on the keyboard) of an innocent fool.
So to all you computers at GCHQ and NSA:
And in this connection, just yesterday I enjoyed
listening to the TED
talk of Richard Ledgett, where he responds to an earlier TED
talk of our hero, Edward
Snowden. Such a contrast! The crude, halting, incoherent
language of Ledgett versus the informed, articulate, sensible
answers of Snowden. With these spy novels: Ian Fleming, John le
Carré, and now Ian McEwan, we are given the impression that, at
least amongst the English spies, when you go up to the top floors of
their dark headquarters where the top people are, everything is
intelligent, all-knowing. But the real-life example of Richard
Ledgett shows that to the contrary, as these spies advance up the
carrier ladder their intelligence must decrease in inverse
proportion, leaving the upper floors inhabited by comparative
morons, fantasizing about the differences between the "good guys"
and the "bad guys". Unfortunately we can no longer make this
distinction, as in the old western movies, by merely observing that
the good guys wear white hats while the bad guys wear black hats.
Anyway, to get back to the book, the heroine has
just graduated with a poor degree (in mathematics!) from Cambridge
University and has had a torrid summer with an experienced old
professor of history, or something. He was a spy back in an actual
war, namely World War 2, but then he did something questionable,
left the service and became a professor, seducing a steady stream of
young, innocent, female students, the last of which is Serena Frome.
He grooms her to become a spy. He disappears somewhere, apparently
to a Baltic island with an unpronounceable name, and dies. Serena is
accepted by MI5. She is ordered to disguise herself as a cleaning
woman and go and clean up a "safe house" somewhere in the mysterious
depths of London. While doing so, she finds that the mattress on a
bed has a large blood stain just where someone's head would have
been. Underneath the bed is a scrap of paper with the
unpronounceable name of the Baltic island written on it. How
The story develops. We are already at page 200 or
something. We brace ourselves for the revelations of the horrible
things which have taken place in the safe house. Poor, beautiful
Serena is summoned up to the third (or is it even the fourth?) floor
of headquarters. She is given her important, secret, assignment.
What is her mission? Is she to parachute under cover of darkness
into the mysteries of the Baltic, learning how to pronounce the name
of the island and rescue her hero, the Cambridge professor, from the
tentacles of communism?
Her mission is to give some money to a handsome
young novelist named Tom Haley who, according to the information
which has been gathered by the English Stasi, seems to have
published something or other which was critical of communism. This
is in contrast to most of those English literary types of the 1970s
who were duped into believing all that communist nonsense back then.
According to Serena's instructions, she should not attempt to
influence what Tom writes. He is encouraged by the "Freedom
Foundation" to freely write whatever he likes. So he does. And
Serena and Tom fall torridly in love with one another. His book is
not particularly well liked by the spies on the 5th floor of
headquarters. But that doesn't matter. What matters is that it
suddenly appears in the papers that Tom Haley is being financed by
MI5. A scandal!
Who revealed this great secret of MI5? That it is
actually throwing money at an innocent novelist who knows nothing
about it? It turns out it is Max, a spy who has only reached the 2nd
floor of headquarters, and who himself wanted the beautiful Serena.
Thus his treachery was a result of jealousy. He tells Tom
everything. And Tom decides to write a novel as if it were being
related by Serena. So this is the book we have before us. Aha!
An interesting twist.
But what about the blood on the bed in the safe
house?... Forget it. That was nothing.
And why was it a scandal that the English Stasi
was giving money to innocent writers? I thought that was, and
probably still is, common practice. Indeed, numbers of scientific
conferences on abstruse mathematical themes which could never have
had any practical application to real life - let alone fighting cold
wars - were openly sponsored by NATO back then. I didn't
attend any of those conferences, but I know that even Russian
mathematicians were welcome to attend.
So what is this book all about?
I can only conclude that Ian McEwan was
reminiscing about his own beginnings as a novelist, before he became
a wealthy best-seller author, imagining what it would have been like
to have been seduced by a beautiful young Cambridge student bearing
This book is narrated in a sequence of
short, dream-like episodes, each only a page or two. It is the story
of the life of Philip Bowman. Things begin on a ship in the Pacific.
World War II. The assault on Okinawa. Bowman is a junior officer. On
the bridge he is Mr. Bowman, the navigation officer. More senior
officers ask his advice. But suddenly the Japanese attack,
everything blows up, and then we switch to the next episode, after
the war, in New York.
James Salter's real name was James Horowitz. He
was born in 1925, and so was just joining the military - studying at
West Point - as the Second World War came to a conclusion. He stayed
on, becoming a fighter pilot in Korea, flying F-86 sabre jets,
hunting down MIG-15s. He only had one kill. Nevertheless, he wrote
about these experiences in his first novel: The Hunters,
which later became a Hollywood movie. From what I read, the other
pilots in his unit who became flying aces (5 or more kills) and who
found themselves in the characters in the novel were not entirely
satisfied with Salter's narration. Instead of continuing to write
war novels, Salter branched out - into erotica - apparently
influenced by Henry Miller.
In the present book, Philip Bowman becomes a
successful editor in an up-market New York publishing house,
publishing novels. He falls in love with a beautiful young woman
from the "aristocratic" Virginia country. She rides horses and
visits her friends in their spacious mansions. The marriage is
neither approved by Bowman's mother nor Vivian's father. Suddenly
Vivian writes Philip a letter, telling him that they are not meant
for each other. She wants nothing more to do with him. This is a
shock since he had thought that he was living the ideal life of
And so the book goes on to describe one lonely,
erotic episode after another. As Philip gets older, the 1950s turn
into the 60s, and then the 70s, and the women who remain in their
30s become progressively younger than Philip. But still, he is the
suave, sophisticated, elegant figure in the publishing business,
traveling to Europe on an expense account. London, Paris. The big
cities. The women are always breathtakingly beautiful. He remains
the virile Henry Miller lover. Is this love? The woman in London
goes on to other things. The American-Greek woman lets him buy a
house for her and her daughter in the country, out of New York. Is
it on Long Island? Then she falls for an even more virile building
contractor. She sues Philip for the house, lying through her teeth,
displaying her ravishing beauty to a jury of men, and wins.
The central episode is where Bowman, now in his
aging 50s, by chance meets Anet, the daughter of the American-Greek
woman, in a train station in New York. She has become 20 years old.
She would like to obtain a position in publishing. She is beautiful.
(Of course!) And Philip, who had been with her as a kind of
step-father when she was in her pubescent teens, asks her out. They
smoke a pipe of hashish together. Philip suggests she accompany him
to Paris for his next trip where she can also meet all the
sophisticated - and from the book, rather degenerate - European
editors. There follows a torrid weekend in a hotel in Paris somewhat
in the style of the movie Last Tango in Paris, although
Bowman is perhaps not quite as brutal as Marlin Brando. After a
couple of days of this he wakes up in the morning to find Anet
sleeping deeply. So he quietly gathers his things together, leaves
and rents a car to drive south into the French countryside, leaving
Anet to wake up, without money, having to make her way back to New
York alone some way. Revenge against her mother.
The characters in this book are like figures in
an Edward Hopper painting. Coming from somewhere, going somewhere.
Who knows? But while Hopper's figures exist peacefully, outside of
time, the ones in this novel are each taken violently by Bowman.
Rather like MIG-15 kills in the Korean war.
A book of short stories involving young,
and not so young girls in Canada. The last four stories, under the
heading "Finale", are autobiographical, describing episodes in the
life of the author when she was growing up, back in the 1930s and
40s. I enjoyed reading the book despite the fact that the stories
describe a Canada which is different from the land which I picture
when thinking about it. I like to think about the huge open spaces,
the mountains, perhaps traveling along with a team of huskies. And
we think of Canada as a tolerant, open society which is often
skeptical of the developments in its huge, aggressive neighbor to
the south. But these stories are more claustrophobic. The vast
countryside is a trap. The families are full of intolerant religion.
I see that Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize
for Literature. With some of these prizes (of course the Booker
prize is the famous one) we expect that the book might be fun to
read. On the other hand, my impression is that those Nobel Prize
people are looking more for dreary moralizing. Reading as an
exercise in righteousness. But this seems not to be the case with
Alice Munro. The stories really are enjoyable to read.
It is clear that Michael Connelly has won
neither the Nobel Prize for Literature nor the Booker Prize. This
paperback just caught my eye in the bookshop along with the previous
one by Alice Munro. But it definitely was a fun read. Although it is
465 pages long, I've read it in the last two or three days, staying
up late at night to find out how things turn out.
According to the short description of the author
at the beginning of the book, he began as a "former police reporter
for the Los Angeles Times". He is certainly prolific. The
list of his past books runs down the whole page inside the front
cover. So this is a story of crime in LA, somewhat in the tradition
of Raymond Chandler. But the hero, Mickey Haller, is not a private
detective. Rather he is trial lawyer, defending criminals with all
the tricks in the book. He is the hated enemy of the police, the
district attorney, and all those other people who devote themselves
to the problem of capturing the criminals.
But what if it is the police, or in this case
some rogue element within the "DEA", which is the criminal? We have
a fast-paced story with all the jargon which I suppose must come up
amongst lawyers and their teams of investigators, and then the
obscure legal jargon of the courtroom. Mickey and his team are
constantly tracking down witnesses, developing theories as to the
truth behind things, often operating in an environment of
threatened, or even real danger, all with the goal of proving the
innocence of their client who is suffering in the hell-hole of a Los
Angeles prison. Constant use is made of the Internet. IPhones and
IPads are everywhere keeping everybody in instant communication and
allowing quick answers to all the questions which come up.
I have no idea if this world of Michael Connelly
is a true representation of the modern crime scene in LA. He seems
to live there, and he must have some contacts with real-life
LA-lawyers. At the end of the book is a section of Acknowledgements
with a list of people in it. Some of them must have first-hand
knowledge of these things. Nevertheless, I have a couple of
For example in one of the pivotal scenes of the
story, our lawyer, Mickey, is cruising along the highway in his
Lincoln limousine, sitting in the back seat which has been fitted
out as a kind of traveling office with computer, printer, and what
have you. He is returning from setting up a deal with a pair of
convicts in a prison out in the desert behind LA. Earl, his
chauffeur and general helper is driving. Suddenly they are rammed
from behind by a truck, shoved off the road down a steep ravine in
order to kill them. The "bad guys" are trying to get them! Mickey
survives, but Earl is killed. And so Mickey lives on in remorse
since he has known about the GPS "tracker" which has been attached
to his Lincoln all along. Its purpose was to give the bad guys in
the DEA the opportunity to continuously track Mickey's progress
while driving about in LA. And he left it on the car with the
thought that they did not know that he knew about it, thus perhaps
giving him some sort of advantage in this whole game of prosecution
and defense. So his remorse results from the knowledge that leaving
the GPS tracker on the car enabled the killers to find them.
Oh. But wait a minute. This book has a copyright
from 2013, not from 1980 or so. I thought everybody knows that
mobile phones are being continually "tracked". I can look in the
Internet and find out just where my mobile is. In fact it is sitting
right next to me on my desk here. Seemingly Michael Connelly doesn't
know this. I suppose that if I knew his mobile number, then I could
track him too! I could certainly do so if I were in the DEA, or the
CIA, or the FBI, or the Homeland Security, or the LAPD, or whatever,
with all those ugly designations.
My mobile is currently switched on, so it is
obvious that it is being tracked. After all, it wouldn't work if it
weren't. But then most people also know that it can even be tracked
if it appears to be switched off. In fact, even when it is switched
off, those people who are spying on us can turn on the microphone
and listen to whatever is happening around the telephone. In the
modern world, most people are continuously walking around with
spying "bugs" in their pockets. We are told that the only way to
ensure privacy - apart from throwing these things in the garbage -
is to take the battery out. Of course I have a Samsung Android
mobile which has a removable battery. With IPhones and IPads it is
impossible to remove the batteries. They are soldered right into the
circuit board. Back in the innocent 1980s I had an Apple II
computer, and then one of the original Macintoshes. But I stopped
using Apple when they started with these malicious practices. I
can't understand why Steve Wozniak continues to associate himself
with that company.
And then, perhaps after Michael Connelly had
finished writing the book, we had Snowden's revelations, confirming
what most people suspected. The structure of the Internet is such
that most nodes lead directly to GCHQ in England, or NSA in the USA.
Thus everything in the Internet is being continuously monitored,
including the activities of lawyers and their digital relations with
their clients and with the world. Even the private communications of
the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and many of the other heads of
state in the world were being monitored. This has led her technical
people to provide her with a specially programmed secure mobile.
After all, from the mathematical point of view the problem of
constructing perfectly secure communications was essentially solved
30 or 40 years ago. There has been some talk of creating a European
network which would be isolated from the GCHQ and NSA. I expect it
will come to nothing. Perhaps here in Germany, where people have had
to endure the terror of the GESTAPO and the STASI, the law might be
more robust in protecting us from these abuses.
But my question is, how is it possible for a
modern lawyer to do business if that business involves accusations
of misconduct on the part of people in the government? The only way
they could conduct a legal defense as in the story of this book
would be to avoid the telephone network completely. Communication
would be confined to the spoken word - during a quiet walk in the
woods - or via hand-written notes, or communications typed on
old-fashioned, mechanical typewriters. And the secret police would
come down like a ton of bricks with all their electronic
eavesdropping and gathering of secret information, destroying such a
lawyer at his first appearance in the courtroom.
And anyway, the basis of this story, and the fate
of millions of people in the USA who exist right now in the horror
of that country's vast prison system, is the eternal "War on Drugs".
Why do we need a War on Drugs? Why does modern society pursue with
puritanical vigor its war against certain drugs while at the same
time encouraging, sometimes even forcing the use of other kinds of
equally harmful drugs? Surely the answer is that if all drugs were
freely available, and the pharmaceutical industry were to operate
according to the principles of the free market, then these DEA, NSA,
GCHQ, and what have you people would be out of business. And there
would not be all the billions, even trillions, of corrupt drug money
flowing about the place, creating the background for crime stories
such as the one in this book. Of course it will never happen, short
of some overwhelming upheaval. The wealth of the oligarchs who
control the world depends on the War on Drugs.
Well, certainly John le Carré does
understand the fact that whenever you use a mobile telephone, or in
fact any kind of telephone, you are not only exposing where you are
to the whole world, but everything you do or say with your telephone
or computer is being recorded by the NSA, and I suppose a whole
flock of other institutions of the secret police, to be kept for all
time and to be possibly used against you. The final scene of this
book involves Toby, an up-and-coming member of the British Foreign
Office, running for his life to an internet cafe where he is about
to send emails to 5 or 6 famous newspapers, containing the details
of a certain scandal. He is a "whistle-blower". But he makes a
mistake. In order to obtain the addresses for his emails, he
switches on his Blackberry smartphone. Immediately the air is filled
with the urgent blasts of police sirens coming from all directions.
The professional killers have come to get him. And that is the end
of the book.
Business people used to prefer Blackberrys since
they were reputed to be more secure than other mobile phones. They
encrypted everything. Yet it seems that the secret police have
always been able to decrypt them. And the Skype system was, perhaps
still is, encrypted, yet it has been bought by Microsoft so that it
is now as insecure as if there was no encryption at all. There
certainly are means for scrambling
your telephone conversations so that the secret police will
never be able to unscramble the gobbledygook they are recording, but
I suppose most of us can't be bothered. After all, what do I have to
hide? However, as with the STASI in the former East Germany, the
purpose is to accumulate so much information that anybody might
possibly be vulnerable to blackmail, some time in the future
at the convenience of the secret police.
Anyway, having written all that, I should write a few more words
about the book. The scandal which Toby was trying to expose involved
a botched up bit of terror, organized by a trendy "New Labour"
minister in the style of the reviled Tony Blair. Some people are
sent to Gibraltar to cooperate with some mercenaries in order to
kidnap somebody and have them "extraordinarily renditioned", which
is the Orwellian term for sending them to some other mercenaries who
specialize in the disgusting business of torture. This, in itself,
is to my way of thinking a horrible crime and a scandal. A filth
which was perpetrated by the USA even before the George W. Bush era.
Yet it would be pointless for a whistle-blower to expose this filth.
It is common knowledge! A practice which is even defended by the
No. In the story of this book, the scandal is
that the mercenaries charge in with guns blazing, yet they do not
capture the intended victim. Instead they kill by mistake a mother
and her daughter. To cover things up, the bodies are removed from
the scene of the crime and disposed of, and the New Labour minister
retires from politics to gain even more riches in the world of
banking and organized crime.
John le Carré is the master of the spy novel, but
his more recent books have become a much more personal protest about
the way the world is going. Is it such a scandal that a woman and
her daughter might be gunned down in a mercenary commando action in
Gibraltar? Many innocent women and children, as well as men, have
been senselessly murdered in the real world using drones. And Obama,
the darling of the "liberal" left in the USA, has become the
champion of this new form of scandal. I feel sorry for him. As is
well known, the NSA has recorded everything about him going back to
way before he ran for president. If not blackmail, then certainly
enough to exert sufficient pressure.
This was the only Agatha Christie book
which has been put into Gutenberg.org. Does that mean that the rest
are all newer and still subject to copyright? In any case, I think
it is the first Agatha Christie book which I have read.
The action takes place during the first world
war; the book was first published in 1916. The narrator, Arthur
Hastings, is a soldier on leave from the Western Front. Unlike real
soldiers on leave from the Western Front, Arthur Hastings was not
trying to regain his equilibrium from the overwhelming horror of
exploding munitions, wounded comrades trapped out in no-mans-land
with their guts blown out, screaming with pain, the stench of death,
decay. No. Arthur Hastings was like a bored Oxford student, filled
with ennui, visiting an old friend in an English country mansion.
And as is the case with privileged students, Arthur felt free to
extend his leave for as long as he wished, or at least until the
excitements of his holidays calmed down sufficiently to be again
replaced with boredom.
Thus this book demonstrated from the opposite
perspective the conditions which Robert Graves described in Goodby
to All That. The unthinking ignorance of the privileged ladies
of England of which Agatha Christie was a typical member.
During Arthur's holiday from the war, the
step-mother of his friend is murdered. And so the story becomes a
puzzle concerned with discovering who did it. The book was
sufficiently interesting to keep me reading to the end, yet the
lengthy last chapter in which Hercule Poirot explains the details of
the murder was so long-winded and complicated as to become a bit
This was Agatha Christie's first book. Perhaps
the later ones were better. Who knows?
The book begins with numbers of tall
stories, but then as the three men set off in their rowboat from
London, following the Thames to Oxford, things become interesting
and the stories are not so tall. The book was first published in
1889. And so we read of a different world from the loud, hectic
goings on of modern times. Rather than rowing, much of the voyage
was accomplished by pulling the boat with a rope while walking along
the towpath on the bank of the river. Towing is undoubtedly easier
than rowing, at least when you are traveling upstream, and as this
picture of an ancient towpath in the South of France which I
found in the Wikipedia illustrates, it can be a spectacular
The book is written as if it were the true
account of Jerome K. Jerome's experience when traveling with two
friends in the boat. But in reality it is based on the author's
honeymoon trip in a boat with his wife Ettie. The book was a
tremendous success in its day. I have often seen it mentioned, and
so I was curious to read it. A refreshing change from these heavy
Victorian novels with all their moralizing. I can imagine that
Jerome K. Jerome was a very pleasant fellow. Here is a
link to the Wikipedia article about him. He published a lot of
other things, but Three Men in a Boat remained his great
I'm not really that keen on these novels of
Dickens. It's taken me a while to get through this one, but in the
end it was a pleasant read. Not the gloomy, rather Gothic character
of some of his other stuff.
As with most of his books, Dickens produced this
as a series of installments, coming out month after month for a year
or two. In this case from May 1849 to November 1850. Looking at an image
of the cover of the first installment, I see that it cost one
shilling, which, if we are to believe what the inflation calculators
on the Internet tell us, would be about the cost of a paperback book
in today's world. Thus if there were twenty installments, the entire
book would have cost as much as twenty modern editions. Pretty
pricy! (Of course if you simply download it from gutenberg.org as I
have done, it costs nothing.)
Given all of this, then we can imagine what it
must have been like to read the book back in 1850. It was often read
out-loud within the family. In fact I see that in those days groups
of illiterate people sometimes joined together, each chipping in
their half-penny, or even just their quarter-penny ("farthing"), in
order to buy a copy of the latest installment and pay someone to
read it for them. And so the story goes on from month to month,
keeping everybody interested and keen to buy the next episode to see
how the story will develop.
At the beginning of the book, which in 1850ish
terms was the first few monthly installments, things start off with
all the gloomy unpleasantness which we had hoped to avoid. The book
is written as if it is the autobiography of the author, David
Copperfield, and he tells us about his birth. His father had died
six months beforehand. His mother was a flighty, silly, babyish
woman with little means, and his aunt, who might have been in a
position to save the situation, left in a huff, uttering a jumble of
incoherent, nonsensical thoughts. He spends the first few years of
his life in simple infantile pleasure with his mother. But this is
brought to an abrupt ending with the horror of her marriage to the
sadistic Mr. Murdstone, who brings to the house his equally sadistic
sister, Miss Murdstone. Why did the mother marry such a ridiculously
horrible man as this? Why does she tolerate her new husband, this
Murdstone, continuously tormenting, whipping, her poor little son
David who she is supposed to love?
After a nice crisis in which the little David
bites Murdstone in his hand during a whipping session, David is sent
to a strange boarding school where the only thing which seems to be
taught is that all of the boys are to be continuously whipped except
for the one favored boy, James Steerforth, whose family is rich, and
thus it presumably pays the school lots of money in order to allow
him to enjoy his favored position of privilege in the society of the
school. David becomes good friends with Steerforth, which gives him
some privileges, yet not protecting him from the main business of
the school, namely being whipped. The Gothic elements of the story
are enhanced by the tragic death of David's mother under the
oppression of Murdstone.
Then the horrible Murdstone steps in again and
sends David away from school, at least freeing him from the whip,
but putting him in a filthy sweat-shop of Victorian London. He
experiences this as the ultimate punishment of his step-father. For
the intention was to reduce David from being a member of the "finer
society" of 19th century England to being a simple worker of the
lower classes. It is said that the book has many elements of Dickens
own biography, and indeed, this reflects a phase of his life as a
child when his father was imprisoned for a time in a debtors prison,
and the young Charles Dickens was put to work in a London "shoe
blacking" factory, whatever that is.
After meeting various characters during this
phase of things, the David of the book sets off to walk from London
to Dover to the aunt who made such a mess of his birth, and who had
then said that she wanted nothing more to do with that family. He
arrives at her house in Dover in rags, starving. I suppose in those
days, England was full of such miserable street children. We expect
the aunt to do the usual thing; kick the dirty little boy away to
starve somewhere. Out of sight. But unexpectedly, she takes him in.
And so now the whole book turns around and everybody is wonderfully
loving and everything is beautiful.
Whereas up to now all the characters were bad,
things change completely and (except for Uriah Heep - who is nothing
but bad) all the characters are ridiculously good. David is at
school in Canterbury. Aunt Betsey, Agnes, the Doctor, Mr. Dick, Mr.
Wickfield, and so on, are all wonderful people. They all love each
other in the highest, purest way. Tears come to their eyes with all
their love. Then gradually, as David grows up and moves to London,
he meets new, wonderful people. His Dora, is beautiful, a delicate
flower, but still, she is as silly and shallow as his mother was.
Tears of love are everywhere. He marries her. But at least this part
of the book is interesting. What is marriage like with a totally
shallow, vacuous partner, even though one would like to continue the
loving relationship? Rather than developing this more interesting
strand of the whole saga, Dickens has her wasting tragically away.
Presumably tuberculosis. So Dora dies, and the way is free for David
to marry the truly wonderful Agnes. And the book ends with all the
good people being even more wonderfully good than we had thought
anyway. The ones who have immigrated to Australia are all
wonderfully good and successful, David is a famous author of
wonderful romances, Agnes is his ideal mate, they have wonderful
children, and everything ends happily ever after.
In the middle of all this Victorian romance I was
a bit irritated with the story of "little Em'ly" who, according to
the plot was supposed to marry the boring, uneducated, tongue-tied
Ham who, admittedly, was supposed to be a wonderfully good, brave
man. But little Em'ly secretly wanted to escape from her life of
drudgery in the working class, and instead advance into the upper
class, represented by David and his ilk. So she runs away with
Steerforth. Maybe to become "Emily", rather than the degrading
"little Em'ly". Or think of the real-life Emma who, 50 years before
our 1850ish time, captured that Hero of England, Lord Nelson, and
became the darling of the upper classes.
But no. Charles Dickens portrays little Em'ly as
a fallen woman, despite the fact that she charms the society of
Italy, France, and wherever she travels with Steerforth. So Dickens
lets Steerforth drop her, and she returns to dreary England in order
to be "saved" by all the good, hypocritical people there who quickly
whisk her off to Australia where nobody knows of her fallen
disgrace. And there she leads a chaste, saint-like life, atoning for
her earlier sin of trying to advance out of the working class.
I find it difficult to understand the fact that
many people rate this book, or various other books of Dickens, as
being amongst the greatest books ever written. Clearly the people
back in 1850 found the story with all its characters to be
fascinating. For me they were mostly one-sided caricatures, not
real-life people. I suppose the reason for this is that the 1850s in
England was a time of great change in society. The individual, with
all his complicated facets, was a thing of the past; something for
the privileged, elegant readers of the 18th century. In the time of
Dickens, the masses of his readers were interested in moralizing,
and thus in change. For this they needed simple characters to
represent the difference between evil and virtue in humanity.
I really enjoy these books of Nick Hornby.
This one is based on the following idea. It is midnight on New
Year's Eve. One after another, four people find their way up to the
top of a tall building in London which is a well-known place for
people to jump off. Suicide. But they start talking with one another
and come down. It's not as if their problems are solved, but somehow
it no longer seems just the right time for suicide. The story is
told from chapter to chapter through the various narrations of each
of the four characters. They are:
Nick Hornby deals with all this with his cool, often funny dialogue.
The four characters decide to form a "gang" to keep together.
Perhaps they will meet after 90 days, or six months, or something,
and see if any of them still want to jump. Maureen is not very happy
with the way people are talking, but they try to respect her.
- Martin. A middle-aged morning TV talk-show host who, in the
course of his devious life has deceived his wife countless
times, most recently with a 15 year old girl. For this he has
spent the past six months in prison. (Apparently the age of
consent in England is 16.) His life is in tatters. He is
publicly reviled in the "boulevard press", and he is the
laughing stock of everybody he meets. Having lost his job in
real television, he is now scraping along in an obscure cable
television outfit run out of a shack somewhere in London, with a
staff of two or three people. It is so obscure that nobody
watches it. He has no future. His wife has gone on and found a
much better partner than Martin. His daughters want nothing to
do with him.
- Maureen. A very unhappy woman. When she was young, she was in
love with somebody with whom she slept. Just once. The man left
her, but their encounter led to pregnancy and she gave birth to
a boy who was severely handicapped. He has now grown up. Maybe
25 years old or so, and Maureen is 50. The son sits in a
wheelchair all day, wheezing heavily with a blank expression.
Totally apathetic. He seems not to hear or see anything. A
living vegetable. And so Maureen, who is a deeply religious
woman, does nothing but stay at home, year in, year out,
attending to her son. She sees him as God's punishment for her
sin of sleeping with her friend out of wedlock. Suicide is also
a mortal sin, but after all these years her spirit has become
- Jess. A foul-mouthed teenager, I suppose about 18 years old.
Her father is a junior minister in the corrupt "New Labour"
government of Britain. Slang and the f___ word spew out of her.
She is also violent, hitting people, screaming wildly. She has
slept with a man who then ran away from her, and she can't find
him. Thus her violence has turned against herself and she has
thought of suicide.
- JJ. A 30 year old American living in London. He has been
playing in a rock band, but they have broken up. Also his
girlfriend has left him. For him, music is everything. He
remembers how people have been moved by his music, but now there
is nothing; he had left school before finishing and so he has no
formal qualifications. He is surviving by delivering pizzas.
Life has lost all meaning.
I haven't been around people who use this
sort of language since I was a student, 40 or 50 years ago. It's not
just the f___ word. (In Germany, the equivalent word is not commonly
used amongst people corresponding to the types in this story. In
fact they use the English version, as in this book. The word
"Scheisse", whose English equivalent is obvious, is quite common.
But it is hardly considered to be very rude in Germany.) I wonder
how Nick Hornby knows so much of this London slang. He is also not a
particularly young person. Has he picked it up from his children?
So if we agree with Maureen to accept all of this
bad language, we begin to understand the problems of these
characters in more and more detail. There is no happy ending where
anybody "lives happily ever after". But at least Maureen has come
out of her isolation and found new things to do in life.
Tatiana, by Martin Cruz Smith
A week or two ago the old film Gorky
Park, with Lee Marvin, was shown on TV. I enjoyed it despite
the fact that the basic premise of the plot seemed to me to be
somewhat implausible. Lee Marvin was a violent, underworld criminal
devoting all his energies to smuggling a couple of sable out of
Russia. But after all, the natural range of the sable extends beyond
Russia, so why bother with such smuggling?
Perhaps the Russian sub-species of sable might
have a slightly different coloring of its fur, or whatever,
making it more desirable for these Mafia-type people who find it
necessary to adorn themselves with fur coats, or hats, and what have
you. I do have a reasonably expensive winter coat with an imitation
fur-lined hood. The fact of the matter is that cheap coats
bought in discount shops often have real fur, taken from animals
bred in terrible conditions in China. These days it is cheaper for
those Chinese to simply torment animals rather than going to the
trouble of manufacturing high quality artificial fur!
Anyway, the plot of Gorky Park seemed to
me to be somewhat unrealistic.
But then in town at the bookshop I saw the
present book and thought that it might be a fun read, even if the
plot were to be questionable. The main character is the same as in Gorky
Park. An inspector in the police department of Moscow named
Arkady Renko. Apparently Martin Cruz Smith has written a whole
series of these detective stories involving this Arkady Renko
Perhaps the plot is true-to-life. Things again
take place in Russia. It is now Putin's post cold war Russia,
dominated by corruption and gangs of criminal oligarchs, flaunting
their ill-gotten riches. Tatiana is an investigative journalist who
has apparently been murdered by all of these chaotic, corrupt, evil
people. In fact though, they murdered her sister by mistake. And so
our hero, Arkady Renko, saves her, and while only one or two of the
evil oligarchs are killed in the fray, the badness of Russia
continues, and poor Arkady lives on to continue his lonely fight for
goodness in the next book of Martin Cruz Smith's series.
Much of the action takes place in the Baltic
enclave of Kaliningrad,
a place with an interesting history. Also a place where you can find
amber on the beach. It was established by the Teutonic
Knights during the Middle Ages; the time of the crusaders.
After Saladin threw them out of Jerusalem they decided to head in an
easier direction, along the Baltic coast, with the idea of forcing
all those Slavic peoples to adapt their Christian religion. And so
the town of Königsberg
was established, the home of Immanuel Kant, and the birthplace of
that great mathematician, David Hilbert. But after the Second World
War the Russians took over and renamed the place Kaliningrad, after
Kalinin, a pal of Stalin who survived Stalin's purges.
Kalinin's wife Ekaterina
also survived the purges, living on beyond the Stalin era despite
the fact that she had been arrested in 1938 and subjected to
horrible tortures before being thrown into a prison camp. Kalinin
himself, a careful person, kept a low profile and so did not protest
this dreadful treatment of his wife.
But I had to ask myself, why is this Martin Cruz
Smith - an American living in sunny California, who can even claim
indigenous American ancestry - constantly writing these dark stories
about Russian corruption? Has he ever been to Russia? I certainly
haven't. So I don't know if all those Russians really are so
horrible and corrupt. The ones I have met here are friendly, honest
people. And the ones in the eastern part of the Ukraine seem quite
keen to rejoin their fellow Russians, so obviously they think that
Russia is not so bad.
Isn't it more usual for an author to base his
stories in the place where he lives - in this case in Southern
California - and where he can honestly observe life as it is? Can it
be that with these Arkady Renko books, Martin Cruz Smith is simply
cashing in on the American paranoia about Russia?
Many years ago I read two books by
MacDonald Harris: Yukiko and The Balloonist. They
made a great impression on me. I suppose I just found them in the
bookshop, and I didn't catch up with the subsequent books he wrote
which appeared in the 1980s and 90s, before the time when you could
just click into Amazon and have the next book delivered by the
postman in a day or two. A couple of years ago I did look for those
further books, but they seemed to be out of print.
MacDonald Harris was the pseudonym of Donald Heiney,
who died in 1993. This present book, The Carp Castle, was
finished just before he died, but remained as a forgotten
manuscript, only to be rediscovered in the last year or two.
Happily, some other people remember these books of MacDonald Harris,
and so this one has been printed, and I could read it. Unfortunately
the German version of Amazon only has a couple of his books,
including one or two second-hand offerings at ridiculous prices. The
American version of Amazon.com has more of his books, but I see that
some book seller there has a "new" copy of They Sailed Alone,
which he wants to sell for $2,420.43 plus a $3.99 shipping charge!
Hahaha! Then another bookseller is offering a second-hand version of
the same book for $2.65. What a laugh. I'm sure that if MacDonald
Harris were still alive then he would have some interesting thoughts
on the inner workings of the mind of that first book seller.
I particularly liked Yukiko. It starts
off in an American submarine in World War II, looking through a
periscope at the hills of Hokkaido in Japan. A small commando group
disembarks onto the beach. Their mission is to blow up a dam where
the extraction of heavy water is taking place, possibly needed for
Japan's scientists to produce their own atom bomb. We are led step
by step through a series of dream-like visions as the men make their
contacts with Japanese people and the ancient Ainu.
And then The Baloonist was loosely based
on the true story of the Swede, S.
A. Andrée, who attempted to sail in his balloon from
Spitsbergen with a southerly wind, approaching the North Pole, and
then onwards, hopefully to Canada or Russia. Of course they crashed
and eventually died on the ice. So MacDonald Harris invented three
characters setting off to the North Pole in a Balloon, imagining
their doomed, inner, secret lives.
The present book is a little bit like this. We
are now in the 1920s, and we are on a great Zeppelin, cruising
through the air powered by 4 throbbing Maybach engines at 60 knots.
This is not the Hindenburg, heading for its destiny at Lakewood, New
Jersey. Instead it is a fantasy Zeppelin which has been bought by
Moria, a rich American woman who has become a leader of the esoteric
world. Theosophy, and what have you. She has gathered about her a
collection of followers, and they are traveling with her to the
never-never land of "Gioconda". Apparently the name Gioconda is the
Italian title of da Vinci's Mona Lisa. Moria has christened her
Zeppelin "The League of Nations". Moria says that Gioconda, the land
of free love and warmth is located in a dimple at the then
unexplored North Pole. And so the League of Nations is traveling
ever northwards towards its destruction.
The book progresses through a sequence of
descriptions of Moria's followers, and Moria herself, and also the
captain of the Zeppelin, Georg von Plautus, and of course the
innermost, erotic side of things comes to the fore, as in what I
suppose is psychoanalysis. Nevertheless I didn't find the book to be
as satisfying as those earlier ones. It seemed a bit disjointed. Not
one thing, progressing from step to step, giving a satisfying whole.
I did enjoy the description of the great airship,
progressing majestically along the Rhine past Mannheim in the
Germany of the 1920s, gradually descending towards its base at
Zeppilinheim, near Frankfurt. That is now a small collection of
houses in the forest which you can find via Googleearth, directly
adjoining Frankfurt's huge international airport of today.
A very enjoyable, life-affirming,
light-hearted book. The story is concerned with a character named
Don Tillman who is an Associate Professor of Genetics at The
University of Melbourne. He is also rather autistic. When talking to
people, he describes things exactly the way they are, in the
precise, literal-minded language of an academic publication. This is
not the way "normal" people talk. Don finds it difficult to
understand the emotions of people. He is hopeless in social
situations. He is now 39 years old; extremely fit; black belts in
various martial arts; a handsome man. Yet every attempt to find a
partner for life is doomed to failure. Women are horrified with his
awkwardness and his strange speech. His life is planned down to the
minute. He cooks for himself, alone, and he has a never-changing
schedule of seven recipes, one for each day of the week. He has two
friends: Gene, who is the Head of Department, and Gene's wife
Claudia who is a psychologist, and she is thus able to speak with
him at least in a somewhat normal way.
Despite all his failures, Don devises a plan to
find a suitable mate using rational, scientific principles. He
develops a questionnaire which he puts into an online dating site
with the purpose of finding the perfect woman. At the end of the
book, this questionnaire is reproduced. 25 or so multiple choice
questions. Then for the evaluation, the various choices are given
different values, generally from 0 to 5, although smoking is given
large negative values. A packet or more per day receives minus
50. Only the highest possible score gives the perfect woman. Looking
through the list of questions, I must agree with Don on most of his
choices about what is important and what is to be avoided. In order
to exclude an unwanted bias, he has Gene evaluate the questionnaires
for him. This is fine with Gene who is a terrible womanizer.
At the beginning of this whole "wife project",
Gene does send someone to Don, namely Rosie. As it turns out, she is
actually a Ph.D student. But according to the criteria in the
questionnaire, she is totally unsuitable. And so things develop. In
the end Don becomes more flexible in his thinking about life, Gene -
despite his "open" marriage - returns to his wife, and Rosie falls
in love with Don. They end up in New York at Colombia University,
where Don finds that there are lots of people who are just as crazy
as he is.
Reading the book made me think about my days as a
student so many years ago in Canberra. For me, the university people
in Australia were easier to get along with than those here in
Germany. The professors here seem to take themselves much too
seriously. And so the book brought on a feeling of nostalgia for
Australian academic life. But on the other hand, I see that things
in Australia are now very different from the situation in the 1960s
and 70s. The worst thing is that with the growth of mass tertiary
education, exorbitant tuition fees are being charged, turning
academia into Big Business. This is illustrated in the book when Don
comes into conflict with the Dean owing to the fact that a Chinese
student has cheated; Don thinks he should be expelled, but the Dean
is more concerned with the loss of money the student is bringing in.
Here in Germany the traditional system has, unfortunately, been
replaced by the Bachelor degree system, and along with that, and the
general feeling of the Americanization of things, tuition fees were
introduced. Thankfully those fees have now been repealed so that a
university education is again freely available to any qualified
Bull Fire, by MacDonald Harris
This one was published in 1973; I ordered a
second-hand copy via Amazon. Although it is a paperback, it was
sensibly produced back then, 40 years ago. The binding is sewn, and
after forty years, the paper is still white. Nevertheless, I didn't
enjoy it as much as the other books of MacDonald Harris which I have
There is the ancient Greek idea of the Minotaur, that
mythological creature which is half bull and half man. And then we
have the scenes of bull-leaping
on the island of Crete during the Minoan age 3500 years ago. The
story in the present book takes place in modern times, yet imagining
a small Greek island where bull-leaping by naked youths and lightly
clad girls still exists. The natives are of short stature and brown,
while the tourists from the mainland and the north are tall, pale
The style of writing was quite different from his
other books. I found it hard to believe that this one was also
written by MacDonald Harris. The narrator of the story goes on for
many pages describing his family and especially his house, which is
some sort of ancient, but run-down palace. Everything is in the past
tense. He describes how he was conceived when his mother entered a
strange, bull-like machine which his father then mounted. Then as he
grows up, he withdraws to the dark cellars and passages beneath the
house which are filled with books which he reads in the dim light,
seldom venturing above ground. He makes friends with a two-headed
snake, presumably Amphisbaena,
lurking about the dark passages. Occasionally young light-skinned
tourists make their way down to his dusky realms where he takes them
in his Minotaur character.
All of this reminds us of the fact that the
ancient Greeks must have been unpleasant people, despite the beauty
of much of the art which has survived. And I suppose the same could
be said for this book.
We are also reminded of the associations between
religion and astrology. As the Earth rotates about its axis while
circling the Sun and being circled by the Moon, we find that it is a
gigantic gyroscope. And like all gyroscopes, it exhibits precession.
In the case of the Earth, its axis rotates in the plane of the
planets with a period of about 26,000 years. But from very ancient
times the civilizations of the Northern Hemisphere have divided the
constellations to be seen around the plane of the Earth's equator
into 12 signs of the
zodiac. Astrologers define an Age to
be given by the sign in which the Sun is to be found during the
vernal equinox. Thus as a result of the precession of the Earth,
each Age lasts for just over 2000 years. Back in the psychedelic
1960s we had the musical Hair, with the very memorable song:
"This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius". In fact, this is absolutely
true. We are just leaving Pisces - the fish - and gradually
moving into Aquarius - the waterman. But looking back to where the
Sun used to be during the vernal equinox, we see that before it was
in Pisces, it was in Aries - the ram, and before that in Taurus -
One often sees people driving their cars about
the place with fish-like stickers on the back, proclaiming their
Christian religion. That was the modern thing back then, 2000 years
ago. In those days the Earth was just leaving the Age of Aries. And
so this is the reason that we see rams horns, the shofar, being
blown in various Jewish ceremonies. Going further back in time to
the Mycenaean Greeks, we arrive in the Age of Taurus with bulls
I suppose Christianity will hang on to its fish
in the same way that Judaism has stayed with the ram. But I wonder
if all these esoteric types will soon begin to organize themselves
into some new religion based on the waterman. A liquid Messiah!
These Nick Hornby books are always good.
This one is about a married couple, told from the perspective of the
wife. The wife, Katie, is a hard-working NHS doctor. And since it is
supposed to be the business of doctors to make people better, it
follows - practically by definition - that she is good. Her husband,
David, stays at home, looking after the children, cooking, whatever.
He also writes a cynical, humorous column for the the local paper in
which he makes fun of the pretensions of the suburban English,
Guardian newspaper-reading society in which they live. He is also
writing a novel which Katie has secretly looked at and found to be
dreadful. Their married life has degenerated into cynical,
mud-slinging encounters with one another. Perhaps each believes that
while they are "good" the other is simply being unhelpful. The
dialogue is painful to read. And so, during a typical, unpleasant
telephone call, Katie, who is secretly having an "affair" with
somebody else, suggests to David that they could get divorced. He
just laughs at her.
David learns of an esoteric "healer" with a crazy
name: DJ GoodNews. David has been having headaches, or something,
and he comes back to tell Katie that GoodNews has healed him in a
miraculous way with the warmth of his hands. Katie feels that he is
just trying to provoke her, since she, as a qualified medical
doctor, knows that such faith-healing is nonsense. Then David takes
their daughter, who suffers from a bad case of eczema, to GoodNews,
and she is immediately and completely healed!
Katie doesn't know what to think. She tells David
about her affair. He walks off for a day or two, during which he
stays with GoodNews. He comes back totally changed. He is no longer
cynical. He has seen the error of his ways and now wants to be good.
Soon GoodNews moves in and becomes part of the family. Plans are
made to be even more good than good. Katie's hard earned household
money drains away, being given to whichever beggars happen to turn
up on the doorstep. A project is initiated for offering the homeless
all the spare rooms not only of their own house, but also of the
other houses on the street. Katie begins to doubt the goodness of
her own intentions as a medical doctor. Is she really helping her
patients by listening to them for 10 minutes at a time and then
simply prescribing some pills manufactured by the pharmaceutical
industry which as often as not make things worse?
In the end, things settle down, GoodNews is
gently kicked out of the house, and everybody has a clearer idea of
how to be good.
As everybody knows, the Titanic steamed
full-speed-ahead into an iceberg on the night of the 14th of April,
1912, sinking within two and a half hours and thus killing more than
1,500 people through drowning in the icy waters of the North
Atlantic. The editor of Scientific American Magazine in those days,
the author of the present book, took this opportunity to explain the
problems in the design of large ships and the failings which led to
the sinking of the Titanic. The book was published in the same year:
1912. I came upon it by browsing through the list of the most
downloaded books on Gutenberg.com.
The theme of the book is that ships should be
divided into many well-separated watertight compartments, so that if
a few of them are breached, the others will keep the ship afloat. I
had thought that that was the idea of the "unsinkable" Titanic. But
as Walker shows, the bulkheads of the Titanic were not continued
very far above the waterline so that as it began to sink down at the
bow, the water overflowed progressively the compartments further and
further towards the stern. Also the number of bulkheads was
relatively small, and they were only transverse. None were
longitudinal. So the Titanic was really a death-trap. He contrasts
this with the much safer construction of other ships. In particular
he has great praise for the Great
Eastern, which had much higher standards of safety. He also
analyzes numbers of other large ships which were in service in 1912.
He says that the standards found in the Lusitania
were much superior to those of the Titanic. But of course the
Lusitania was sunk three years later, in 1915, by a torpedo, thus
demonstrating the fact that even well made ships are not unsinkable.
Finally he considers battleships which, of course, were designed to
be as unsinkable as possible. They were constructed with many
separated compartments - even hundreds! - with not only transverse
and longitudinal, but also horizontal watertight bulkheads.
One would think that now, in the 21st century,
all of these quaint problems with ships would have been solved. But
no! Recently there was the case of the Costa
Concordia, which hit a rock while traveling too near to a
small Italian island. The captain of the ship was subjected to much
criticism (it was asserted that his mistress was with him on the
bridge, etc.), but in reality he did a magnificent job of turning
the ship around and landing it softly on the rocks of the island. If
he had not done that, the whole thing would have rapidly sunk in
deep water with the loss of thousands of lives. In any case, the
fate of the Costa Concordia shows that these modern cruise ships
ignore totally the principles of safe ship design described by J.
Bernard Walker. The only reason they are not sinking more often is
that they generally travel slowly, avoiding dangerous places such as
the North Atlantic. In fact I have read that many ships are lost at
sea these days. For example, here is a list
for the year 2012.
Way back in the 1950s, when I was 10 or 12 years
old, my parents gave me a subscription to Scientific American which
was renewed for many years. But I cancelled the subscription after
realizing that it would be cheaper to just read it in the university
library. And now I haven't read anything in Scientific American for
at least the last 15 years. Their standards seem to have declined
terribly. Lots of politically correct pseudo-science which is not
worth reading. What a contrast with the world, or at least the USA,
of a hundred years ago!
I enjoyed this one more than The
Cuckoo's Calling. It was a real page-turner. And so at the end
I was disappointed that I'd finished. It would have been nice if the
story had gone on for another hundred pages or so, to stay in the
world of the detective, Cormoran Strike, so much longer.
The story this time involved the horrible murder
of the obscure novelist, Owen Quine, who wrote obscene, fantasy
literature. Many of the people he was associated with in the
publishing business of London hated him. And so his last novel,
circulated by mistake in manuscript form amongst those people, was
found to be full of characters which were thinly veiled caricatures
of his enemies. Which one of them went so far as to actually enact
the grisly fantasy murder in the novel, thus in real life
eliminating the poor Owen?
Looking for a different book to read, I
thought that it might be an idea to try something by Thomas Mann.
Years ago I read his Death in Venice, and of course I saw
the beautiful film, filled with all that unforgettable, haunting
music from the symphonies of Mahler. A short, poetic book in the
English translation. Not knowing any better, I thought that The
Magic Mountain might be similar. I did know that The Magic
Mountain is concerned with life in a tuberculosis sanitarium in
Switzerland, on the hills above Davos, where these days the
oligarchs of the world gather each year to discuss the details of
their latest "bailout". That is to say, they discuss who amongst
their hallowed circle is to grab which portion of the trillions
which they rob from we normal people in each given year. So for
those bloated souls, Davos is, indeed, a "Magic Mountain". Still, I
was interested in Thomas Mann's book.
The first idea was to click into gutenberg.org
and see if they offer it as an ebook. Well, they do have The
Buddenbrooks, which I didn't really want to read, since I somehow
had the impression that it might be rather overly long and tedious.
But no Magic Mountain. Googling onward, I found the freely available
English translation which I've linked to above. But nowhere could I
find a freely available version of the original German. I can't
understand the problem here. After all, the book was first published
in 1924. That is 90 years ago. And looking at the life of Thomas Mann,
we see that he departed this Earth in the year 1955, which is 59
years ago. So I just downloaded the English version of the book and
began reading it on my Kindle.
When reading books on the Kindle, you don't have
normal pages as in a printed book. Since my eyes are gradually
deteriorating with age, I choose a relatively large font, thus
increasing the number of Kindle pages per book. It is possible to
see what progress you are making since in the bottom left-hand
corner there is a small display (which I read with a magnifying
glass) giving the percentage of progress you have made through the
Things started off in an interesting way,
describing the life of the hero, Hans Castrop, and his youthful life
in Hamburg. I seemed to be making lots of progress through the
story, but I was surprised to see that the Kindle was still
indicating only 1%. After a very long time, it changed to 2%.
Therefore it was clear that reading this book was going to be a
major undertaking! Still, it was an interesting story. Hans is in
the middle of his studies to become an engineer, involved with the
construction of ships. Only at the end did I discover that the time
of the story is the year 1907; thus the Titanic had not yet been
built, and so Hans would not have had the benefit of reading the
book by J. Bernard Walker on the construction of ships which I
Hans is an orphan. Both of his parents have died
and he has been living with an uncle. Nonetheless, he does have a
considerable private income at his disposal. He has developed a bit
of a cough and a temperature, and so his doctor recommends that he
travel to the "Berghof" - that is the "Berghotel
Sanatorium Schatzalp", up in the mountains for the fresh air -
for a couple of weeks. His cousin Joachim Ziemssen, who has
tuberculosis, has been staying there for months already, so Hans can
provide him with some company. And thus, at about the 4% or 5% stage
of the book, we travel with Hans up into the mountains.
The sanatorium is at an altitude of 1500 meters.
Hans goes on and on about the strange feelings induced by the thin
air at this height. Light-headness, mild fever, and so forth. How
ridiculous. Surely most normal people only begin to notice air
thinning out at an altitude of at least 2500 or 3000 meters. The
atmosphere in a mountain valley at 1500 meters is healthy owing to
the fact that the air is clean and dry, and the sun shines
intensely, providing lots of vitamin D.
After reading on for a while, I decided to make
the effort to go into the university library and take out a copy of
the book in the original German. It is 994 pages of small print. I
continued reading in the original from about page 100 to page 300,
but then, tiring, I decided to switch back to the English version on
my Kindle. I had discovered that Thomas Mann did have quite a heavy
style of writing.
Some of the great writers of the past have given
us their views of what constitutes good writing. Think of Hemingway,
or indeed of George Orwell. They said that you should cut out all
that is superfluous. If a single word can be substituted for a
longer phrase, then do it. Get to the point. Don't beat about the
Well... it seems that Thomas Mann took on
this book with the opposite philosophy. If you can substitute a long
flowery phrase covering half a densely printed page for a simple
word, then do it. Fill the book with pages and pages of long-winded
philosophizing about politics, religion, love, medicine, astronomy,
music. The English translation was written somewhat more smoothly.
But then I will admit that in the end, I found that all of this
superfluous baggage did indeed belong to the story, and so I read
the last two or three hundred pages in the original version.
What I have written here has already reached a
stately length, so I will refrain from adding my naïve comments
concerning Thomas Mann's erudite cogitations on all of these diverse
subjects. Nevertheless it was amusing to read his views concerning
medicine. We see that back in 1924 when he wrote the book, almost
nothing was known about the chemical structures which form the basis
of life. Thus, we can safely skip over swathes of pages filled with
his philosophy concerning things which are now known to be false.
And the same is true for many of the other subjects dealt with in
But still. The whole thing was, in the end, a
satisfying story. Hans Castrop remains in the world of the Berghof
for seven years. It is a life in miniature. A civilized, protected
life, yet where many of the residents quietly die, and new patients
Today, we think of those writers of the past - Robert Louis
Stevenson, and what have you - with their feverish imaginations,
consuming themselves to die at an early age. A quaint vision of
bygone days. But imagine: in England in 1815, one in four deaths was
due to tuberculosis. And in France as late as 1918, it caused one in
six deaths. It was as great a problem then as cancer is in the
modern world. Today, if a person gets tuberculosis then he is filled
with antibiotics, and in particular he is isolated from all
other patients. After all, tuberculosis is highly infectious!
Hygiene is of utmost importance. Looking back it seems crazy that in
the early days of the 20th century, elegant, rich sufferers from
tuberculosis gathered intimately together in these sanatoriums,
dining, coughing, sneezing, in close contact with one another for
months and years at a time.
At the end of seven years of opulent dining,
philosophizing, falling in hopeless love with the elusive and
unreachable Madam Clawdia Chauchat, as the book nears its finish it
becomes 1914 and the drums of war are heard even in the refined
alpine air of Switzerland. In a frenzy of patriotic euphoria, Hans
rushes home to Hamburg. He enlists in the army. And we leave him in
the mud, having marched for exhausting hours, weighed down with all
his military kit, into a barrage of bombs and bullets. An ugly
death. Not the elegant death of the Berghof.
Another very thick book. 832 pages. But it
says on the cover that it is the winner of the Man Booker Prize for
2013, so I thought it must be good. It's taken me some time to get
through it, and now, having reached the end, I can say that it is
totally different from Thomas Mann's similarly lengthy tome which I
got through before starting on this one. The Magic Mountain has few
characters, each of whom do little more than spend their idle days
resting and feeling somewhat ill. And yet we delve deep into their
innermost lives. In contrast to this, the present book deals with a
multitude of characters in hectic activity, producing a complicated
story, the details of which were still unclear to me even after
reaching the end of all those pages.
It is a murder mystery, set in the rainy, misty
west coast of the South Island of New Zealand in the year 1866. We
are in the town of Hokitika. A few clicks in Google Earth confirmed
the fact that Hokitika is a real town which still exists, directly
across on the other side of the island from Christchurch. Apparently
there was a gold rush in New Zealand back then, in the middle of the
19th century. And so the story is that a reclusive "digger" after
gold dies mysteriously, and a large hoard of gold is found concealed
in his hut, somewhere out in the rain forest.
The book begins in the classical style, I suppose
typified by all those Agatha Christie books - Murder on the Orient
Express, Murder on the Nile, and so forth. We are in the back room
of a seedy hotel in Hokitika. It is the evening of the 27th of
January, 1866. Twelve very different, seemingly shady men are
gathered together in conspiratorial manner, with the object of
finding out who knows what about the death, and the secret fortune
in gold, of the recluse, Crosbie Wells. Suddenly a new man, Walter
Moody, enters the room. He knows nothing about this business. He has
just arrived in Hokitika in a storm, having been carried through the
surf in a small boat. His luggage is still aboard the ship standing
off the bar guarding the harbor. Is his role that of Agatha
Christie's sleuth, Hercule Poirot? Will he solve the crime, if
indeed it is a crime?
And so we set off into the story, struggling to
remember all the names which keep popping up. Thankfully, the
author, Eleanor Catton, has provided us with a table, a list of the
names of the characters, at the beginning of the book so that we
don't get totally lost. And we read on from chapter to chapter. The
story jumps back and forth, from character to character, and from
the "present" to various points in the past. Each chapter has a
title which appears to have something to do with astrology. For
example "Mars in Sagittarius", and what have you. Also there are
various astrological diagrams throughout the book. The reason for
all this astrology is not made particularly clear. One of the female
characters, Lydia Wells, occasionally tells fortunes, and she also
organized a seance. But she is too rapacious to take such things
The author makes an effort to write the book in
the style of a Victorian novel. Thus, despite the fact that the
action takes place in a rough and ready gold rush camp, we find that
the text is free of all improper words. A 19th century censor would
find little to criticize. The dialog does have the occasional
"d__n", so that the reader is left to puzzle out the letters which
might possibly fill in the blanks. For example, the speaker might
have meant to say "darn". In real life, conversation within such
camps must also have included many instances of the word "f__k",
although this never appears in the book. If it had, then the reader
might presume that the speaker had said "for heavens sake".
(Although that can't really be the correct solution, since then we
would have had "f__ke", rather than "f__k".) Also it was the
convention in those Victorian novels to be less specific about the
place, and the date. Thus we would have had the story taking place
in the town of "H____", in the year "18__". On the other hand,
Eleanor Catton does use the word "whore" often enough. A Victorian
censor would object to this. But towards the end of the book, when
Walter Moody appears as a lawyer in the court, convened to deal with
the whole thing, the presiding magistrate admonishes all parties to
avoid the use of the word "whore". Instead, such phrases as "woman
of the night", or "woman of ill repute" must be used.
By the time we reach page 700, we are gradually
beginning to get a picture of what the story is all about. The
chapters, which at first had been long, become shorter and shorter.
After page 800 they only consist of a paragraph or two. Just a
hectic sketch. And so we are left with only a sketchy picture of
exactly what happened to Crosbie Wells. I had the feeling that the
author, realizing that the book was getting out of hand -
length-wise - decided to have done with it quickly, finishing things
off with a few slap-dash chapters, rather than going to the trouble
of revising all of that earlier stuff.
We are left with a few loose ends. For example,
what was the apparition which confronted Walter Moody during his sea
passage to Hokitika? I was looking forward to the explanation, but
found nothing. Perhaps it was lost in all that astrological hocus
pocus, or maybe it was the ghost of Emery Stains which failed to
appear at the seance. (Of course Stains was alive all the time.) Who
Could it be that the judges of the Mann Booker
Prize just skipped through this voluminous text quickly? After all,
they had to read all the other books on the short list as well. But
this one hardly seems to me to be worthy of such an honor.
Orphan Train, by
Christina Baker Kline
Between 1853 and 1929 many thousands of
orphaned children were sent by train from New York out to the
Midwest, to be placed in families where perhaps they would grow up
more sensibly than would have been the case if they had remained as
street children in the slums of New York. In theory, this may have
sounded like a good idea. It was carried out by the Children's
Aid Society, an institution which still exists. But unlike the
case these days, where foster families are carefully vetted, those
"train riders", as they called themselves afterwards, were simply
exhibited for a few minutes in each of the rural train stations
along the way. Interested people could choose one child or another,
and those not chosen were packed back into the train to be exhibited
at the next station down the line. Babies were soon taken, I
suppose, as today, by childless couples wishing for parenthood. Also
the older boys were taken, principally to be worked as a kind of
indentured farm labor. Effectively slavery. The girls were the most
difficult to place.
This book is a novel, yet it could be the story
of one of those train riders. It is concerned with a 9 year old
Irish girl with an unpronounceable name: Niamh. In addition, she has
Celtic red hair, which is considered to be a very unfortunate thing.
The Irish were largely hated in the United States in those days.
There was nothing to be done about her hair, but the woman who took
her at the second train stop decided to change her name to Dorothy.
In the clapboard house somewhat out of town, she
was expected to join three woman in a small, closed room, working in
a kind of sweatshop, sewing clothes for 10 or 12 hours a day. The
refrigerator and pantry were kept locked to prevent Niamh from
eating more than the thin rations she was allowed. Schooling was
forbidden, despite the fact that the Children's Aid Society
required, halfheartedly, that the children be sent to school. She
was forbidden to go upstairs where the owners of the sweatshop
lived. Also she was forbidden to use the indoor toilet. Instead she
must use the outhouse in the Minnesota winter, and sleep on the
floor in the unheated downstairs hallway.
Thankfully, the beginning depression after the
stock market crash of 1929 led to the failing of this pathetic
little sweatshop. On the other hand, one of the woman employed there
did try to look after Niamh as much as possible, giving her at least
some vestige of love. But now the representative of the Children's
Aid Society had to again pick her up and dump her into some new
situation, hopefully thus getting her off his hands permanently. The
new situation was a total catastrophe. A run-down shack, out on the
cold plains, miles from any help, with the degenerate man and woman
of the shack producing one baby after another. The woman sprawled
all day on the flea-infested mattress, the unemployed man going out
with a gun to try and kill rabbits, squirrels, birds, which Niamh
was expected to turn into some kind of food for the family each
night. But at least she was sent to the country school. The husband
was afraid that otherwise Niamh, this "white-trash" free labor he
had picked up so easily, might be taken away. The situation reached
a crisis during a cold winter night when he attempted to rape the
poor, 9 or 10 year old Niamh. What a mess!
She escaped into the snow-filled night, and
walked the whole distance to the school-house, nearly freezing. The
teacher then rescued her. But the teacher only lived in a boarding
house, and so could not adopt Niamh herself. Eventually the problem
was solved when Niamh went to live with the Nielsons, who owned the
general store in town. Everything picked up. After a few years the
Nielsons adopted her and asked her to take on the name of the
daughter they had lost years before: Vivian.
The years go by, the store becomes a successful
department store, and at the end of her life, Vivian is living alone
in a huge mansion in Maine. There she meets Molly, herself a modern
orphan. It is the year 2011, and the young Molly, together with the
ancient, 90 year old Vivian go through all these old memories. In
the end, Vivian discovers long-lost relatives, and she is no longer
It was a wonderful book. So much better than much
of what I have been reading recently. A book to live in and to be
moved by. I read on into the night. It was much more than simply a
smart literary story.
At the end is a short description of the history
of the Children's Aid Society, together with some photos of the
children as they were on the trains, or being chosen - selected -
for their future lives. How helpless they were! We feel so sad for
them. But then I thought that really, Niamh - Vivian - was lucky.
Compare her situation with that of the poor
children in that shack out in the wastes of Minnesota, fated to live
on with their degenerate parents. They had no means of escape. Even
if the father had raped them, and they were to walk through the
freezing night somewhere in the hope of escape, the authorities
would have returned the children to the parents. Minnesota was ruled
by a cruel religion which tolerated nothing else.
And then there are all the millions of refugees
in the world. This summer, almost every day, we have pictures of
refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean, mainly from Libya to
Italy. As I understand it, most are escaping the horror of Syria.
The so-called "Arab spring" which we were supposed to celebrate
turned into a nightmare, producing countless unwanted orphans.
Franklin wrote this in two phases, the
first, written in 1771 when he is 65 years old is addressed to his
son, while the second part was begun in 1784. We learn of Franklin's
childhood in Boston, that he was apprenticed as a printer to an
older brother who treated him badly, that he fled to Philadelphia,
and that he was encouraged to travel to England by the governor of
Pennsylvania. Upon arrival in the mother country, he found that the
promises that had been made to him were worthless, and so he worked
his way in the London printing industry and then returned to
Philadelphia. He contrasts his high moral standards - his diligence,
frugality, teetotalism, vegetarianism - with the low standards to be
found in England.
Back in Philadelphia, publishing many things,
including his homespun "Poor Richard's Almanac", he quickly becomes
a leading figure in the city. In order to avoid tedious "smalltalk",
he establishes a group of friends who meet regularly to discuss
serious issues. I can imagine that their meetings must have been
most pleasant and interesting - I also hate smalltalk!
Franklin invents a public library, the Franklin
stove, lightning rods, and so forth. He avoids killing himself by
flying a kite in a thunderstorm. He advocates the replacement of
gold with paper money. He organizes a militia for Pennsylvania
in the face of the pacifistic Quakers, and then he organizes a
British force, sent out into the backwoods to deal with the French
All of this is very interesting. But we hardly
get to know Benjamin Franklin as a real person. He only tells us
about his wonderful exploits and his high moral principles. Did he
really lead a completely perfect, exemplary, spotless, totally
Although he seems to be addressing things to his
son at the beginning of the book, we search in vain to find out how
his son came into existence. Franklin's wife was not the mother. In
Franklin was also a very interesting person. Perhaps the
reason Benjamin wrote him out of his autobiography is the fact that
William was a loyalist during the American war for independence, and
was imprisoned for this. Afterwards he was exiled to England and
rejected by his father.
Clearly Benjamin Franklin was a very exceptional
person, but this book is not really an account of his personal life.
Instead it is filled with his thoughts on how we should better
ourselves if we would wish to approach him in the exalted heights of
The Warden, by
I had always thought that Anthony Trollope
must have been one of those heavy, moralizing Victorian writers.
Perhaps his name, for some reason or anther, created this
impression, or the fact that he had written such a lot of books. But
then I saw that the Folio Society was bringing out an edition of
this book this year, and so I thought that I would give it a try.
Rather than bothering with an expensive Folio volume, I just
downloaded it from gutenberg.org and read it on my Kindle.
It was a wonderful, lighthearted story! I must
read more of these books of Trollope.
This one is concerned with the doings within the
Church of England in an imagined cathedral town in south-west
England. In those Victorian days, and I suppose today as well, the
Church of England had degenerated into a comfortable society for
administering past riches and putting on pleasant, traditional
pageantry. The warden of the book is a musician, Mr Septimus
Harding. His instrument is the cello. And he is responsible for the
music in the cathedral. His income - 800 pounds per annum - derives
from a bequest made many hundreds of years ago, during the middle
ages. It involves a home for 12 destitute elderly men of the town.
They live in a comfortable building, receiving full board and
lodging, and in addition a small pocket money. The warden of this
home occupies a large house on the property, and due to various
circumstances, this 800 pounds of income is much greater than the
amount foreseen by the original, medieval donor of the bequest.
But here we are in the middle of the Victorian
age, full of do-gooders, keen to discover scandalous abuses. And Mr.
John Bold takes it upon himself to denounce the extravagant living
of Mr. Harding, contrasting his 800 pounds with the small pocket
money allotted to his charges. The whole situation is aggravated by
the circumstance that Mr. Harding's elder daughter is married to
Archdeacon Grantly, the son of the Bishop, and a very aggressive
defender of churchly privilege. And Mr. Harding's younger daughter
is in love with Mr. Bold.
But Mr. Harding doesn't care about all that
money. He cares for the music, his cello, the welfare of his
daughters and for the twelve elderly men in his care. It is a
delightful story. In the end Mr. Harding finds peace, Archdeacon
Grantly frustration, and the home for elderly men falls into
disrepair and destitution.
This is the longest novel which Trollope
wrote, published in installments in the style of Dickens. It is a
satire on the corruption within the aristocracy and the financial
world of the City of London in the 1870s.
Perhaps the main, or at least the most immediate
character when starting off on the book, is Sir Felix Carbury. He is
a member of that most insignificant level of aristocracy which today
is occupied by the criminal son of the former prime minister of
England, Margaret Thatcher; namely he is a baronet. Sir Felix,
despite the fact that he is still a young man in his 20s, has lost
all of his money through gambling and other forms of degenerate
living. Nevertheless his mother dotes on him, thereby nearly ruining
herself and her daughter, Henriette, Sir Felix's sister, in the
process. The solution which she hopes and prays for is that Sir
Felix will marry some fabulously rich young girl, thus rescuing the
family finances. The object of this business is Marie Melmotte, the
daughter of the great financier Augustus Melmotte. Marie professes
her love for Sir Felix, while Melmotte senior hates him. Sir Felix
doesn't particularly care, one way or the other. The reason for
Melmotte's preference is that he would prefer Marie to marry another
young man, the son of a viscount, which of course is a much higher
level of aristocracy in comparison with a lowly baronet.
There are lots of other characters in the
book as well. Central to it all is the question about who gets to
marry whom, and who gets the money. In the end most of these
questions are resolved. But the basic idea seems to be that those
English aristocrats generally wasted their lives away, leaving their
families in a state of poverty, with the expectation that the eldest
son had in each case the responsibility to marry into lots of money
in order to keep things going for another generation.
Much of the action takes place in the Beargarden,
a gentleman's club where these degenerate young aristocrats gather
together to dine, swill huge amounts of champagne, and then spend
the night gambling at cards till 4 or 5 in the morning, after which
they return to their lodgings to flop into bed and sleep till the
next afternoon when the Beargarden reopens. Large sums of money
change hands during these nights. Sir Felix gets ahead of the game
for a bit, and so he begins to accumulate large numbers of paper
IOUs from the other members. In fact all the members seem to be
swimming in these IOUs. Any member who is foolish enough to start
the night with real money will generally lose it, but whoever wins
receives further numbers of IOUs. The real money which does appear
quickly disappears into the hands of Herr Vossner, who runs the
affairs of the Beargarden. A crisis appears when Sir Felix lowers
himself to the level of actually asking some of the other members to
make good on their IOUs. He even accuses one of them of the crime of
cheating at cards. This is considered to be such base behavior that
he is practically excluded from further play at the Beargarden.
All of this is very similar to the present state
of the European Union, with its single currency, the euro. The
central banks of the various countries, with the blessing of the
European Central Bank, write IOUs to each other on the order of
hundreds of billions, even trillions. Of course it is all pure
fantasy. If Germany, or France, or whatever, were to be actually
called upon to make good on these absurd sums, then this whole euro
nonsense would come to an immediate end. I am astonished that the
euro has lasted as long as it has - going on for 15 years now. In
the book, the Beargarden collapsed within a year.
The basis of Augustus Melmotte's riches was a
simple scam involving the issuance of company shares in a fantasy
railway, connecting Salt Lake City and some obscure place in Mexico.
In the end, Augustus fails and commits suicide. His mistake was to
live too extravagantly in London, incurring actual expenses of many
hundred thousands of pounds, so that he was unable to cover a debt
of 50,000 pounds.
Putting these numbers into the inflation
calculator which calculates the equivalent value in today's paper
"money" , we find that the 50,000£ of 1875 (which was real money)
has now become inflated into about 5 million pounds of our pretend
money. How the world has changed! The bankers in the City of London
today, or on Wall Street, would hardly notice such a paltry sum.
Their scams are on a scale which would take the breath away from
those quaint financial swindlers of the Victorian era.
But I enjoyed the book, despite its length. It is
preferable to laugh about the foibles of these imaginary characters
rather than to think about the staggering levels of corruption in
the financial world of today.
This is the second of the Barchester
novels; the first was The Warden, which I just read a couple
of weeks ago. So this continues the story. The old Bishop of
Barchester dies peacefully and a new bishop is appointed, Dr.
Proudie. He arrives with his wife, Mrs. Proudie, and his chaplain,
Mr. Obadiah Slope. Dr. Proudie is a weak, vacillating character, and
so the question becomes: Who is to be the real Bishop of
Barchester: Mrs. Proudie, or Mr. Slope? While Mrs. Proudie is
certainly a very overbearing character, Slope is pure evil, on a par
with Dicken's character Uriah Heap in his novel David
All the people we got to know in The Warden
are horrified by Slope. The Archdeacon, Dr. Grantly, persuades his
friend, the Oxford Don, Mr. Frances Arabin to take a position in
Barchester in order to aid him in the great battle against Slope.
But of course, complications arise. Eleanor, Mr. Harding's daughter
who had married Dr. Bold in The Warden, becomes a widow when
Bold dies, leaving her with a comfortable income and the infant
Johnny Bold. And so the widowed Mrs. Bold becomes the desired object
of a number of fortune hunters, including the evil Slope. But in the
end, everything turns out nicely. Slope is driven out of town;
Eleanor marries Frances Arabin, who is made the new Dean of
Barchester after the old Dean passes away at the age of 80; Mrs.
Proudie has taken over control of the bishopric, and it seems as if
everybody will live happily ever after. Nevertheless, I see that
there are six novels in this "Barchester" series, so it must be that
lots of new developments are to be awaited!
I have again read this one on my Kindle, having
downloaded it from gutenberg.org. Trollope's style is often very
funny, and I had to laugh out loud. Particularly amusing are the
names he chooses for some of the minor characters. A part of the
drollery is his use of many extremely obscure, antiquated words
which you can either look up, or just skip over, letting the general
flow carry you along. The Kindle does have a dictionary which was
usually capable of finding the appropriate definition, but
oftentimes it drew a blank. In fact it became clear that the text
contained numbers of typographical errors, and even places where a
sentence or two was either omitted, or else duplicated. I suppose
this was due to the book having been scanned, and then the result of
that put through some sort of text-recognition software which, when
encountering difficulties, rather than clearly saying so, instead
substituted a bit of gobbledygook. Going to the library and getting
a copy of the real book would have been more satisfying. But these
ebooks are convenient, and the number of typographical errors is
held within reasonable bounds here.
This is the third Barchester novel. We have
moved right out of town, to Greshamsbury Court, away from Mr.
Harding and all those other people in the Church of England in
Barchester. The story concerns the Gresham family. The Greshams are
commoners, yet they are one of the oldest, most established families
in Barchester County.
Lady Arabella is the wife of Mr. Gresham. She is
the sister of The Earl de Courcy, whose family lives in a castle
somewhere else, near Barchester. Mr. Gresham inherited a wealthy
property, giving him an annual income of 14,000 pounds. Yet the
silly Lady Arabella, with her vain, extravagant style of life has
reduced the Gresham property to ruin, heavily mortgaged. The only
son of the family, Frank, must thus "marry money".
On the other hand, Doctor Thorne, who is related
to the Thornes of Ullathorne, also is a member of an ancient family.
But he has a simple medical practice in the village of Greshamsbury.
His niece, Mary, the heroine of the book, lives with him. She is the
illegitimate daughter of Dr. Thorne's brother and of Mary Scatcherd,
the sister of Roger Scatcherd, a stone mason. Roger kills the
brother in a fit of fury, Mary Scatcherd marries someone else and
migrates to America, leaving the baby Mary in the keeping of Dr.
Thorne, and so Mary grows up in the company of the children of
Suddenly Frank declares his undying love for
Mary. Everybody, and very especially Lady Arabella and all those
horrible de Courcys, think that this is a scandal. Mary also loves
Frank, but she is too well brought up to admit to this love. And so
the story develops. Great emotions.
We learn that Roger Scatcherd has advanced
himself from simple stone chiseling to become a great entrepreneur,
constructing railroads all over the world; his personal wealth
amounts to hundreds of thousands of pounds. He has become Sir Roger,
a baronet. Yet he has ruined his health through drink, and he is an
absurdly simple minded man. And all the time he has been a close
friend of Dr. Thorne, although Dr. Thorne has not told him the true
story of Mary, his niece. Then there is Sir Roger's degenerate son,
Sir Louis Phillipe Scatcherd. An even worse and more degenerate
drunkard than his father. Will he inherit all the riches? Or
what about the unsuspecting Mary?
Will good triumph over evil? We hope for the
best. And yes, in the end everything does turn out all right. Whew!
I'll have to read something else for a change of pace. These
Trollope books are too much for me.
The author, Sibel Edmonds,
grew up in Iran and Turkey before coming to the United States. After
the World Trade Center buildings fell down in 2001, the American
authorities realized that they didn't have a sufficient number of
people who were able to translate documents written in Turkish,
Persian, or Azerbaijani into English. Thus she was hired by the FBI
on September 20, 2001. While there, a coworker tried to recruit her
as a spy against the American government. And so she tried to alert
her superiors within the FBI about these things. Nothing happened.
She went to the Department of Justice in Washington. This led to
retaliations against her, and to her dismissal on March 22, 2002. A
gag order was imposed, forbidding her to discuss anything. But Sibel
Edmonds is not the kind of person to be easily gagged, and the
United States is still a sufficiently free country that she has not
been locked away - as for example a person who had signed the
Official Secrets Act in England would have been.
She founded the National
Security Whistleblowers Coalition, and has thus became
personally acquainted with various people in the FBI, CIA, DIA, NSA,
DHS, and all those other ugly places who would like to expose the
crimes they have seen, or even personally committed. So I suppose
this novel has the goal of describing some of the horrible things
which are going on in the world today, but in a fictional setting in
order to be able to publish the book in the first place.
As is well known, Operation
Galdio was established after the second world war as an
assortment of military "sport" groups whose purpose was to organize
partisan resistance in the event of a communist invasion of Europe.
As I understand it, these were largely fascist groups. Perhaps out
of frustration due to the fact that the USSR was twiddling its
thumbs, not actually invading any of the Gladio lands, some of these
groups took matters into their own hands - or were they acting under
orders?? - and they decided to go into action. The Italian group
exploded numbers of bombs as terrorist attacks (for example the Bologna
massacre of August 2, 1980 is attributed to Gladio). And the Oktoberfest
terror attack at the Oktoberfest in Munich on September 26,
1980 is attributed to the German group.
It is human nature to say that all of those
things were part of the "bad old days". Now, in our beautiful modern
world we are living in the nice sunshine of today where everything
is good, and we can live happily ever after in freedom and peace and
loving harmony, no longer disturbed by evil. Why dwell on the past?
Better to realize that everything now is nice and good.
Of course every day on the "news" we discover
once again that even in today's wonderful world, there do still
exist the "bad guys". But, according to the "news", all those bad
people are, thankfully, far away in all those Islamic places, where
our good, brave soldiers are fighting - successfully - to keep the
This pleasant fantasy is repeated night for night
on the "news". But could it be that it is not the way things really
are? Might it be that Gladio still exists in some sort of new, much
more powerful form? And might it be controlled by those agencies
with those horrible names: CIA, NSA, DHS, MI5, and what have you?
Were the Madrid
train bombings of March 11, 2004, or the London
bombings of July 7, 2005 really so different from the Bologna
bombing of a generation before? And were the Boston
Marathon bombings of April 15, 2013 so different from the
Oktoberfest terror attack? Many people would say:
Of course they were!!!
Well, crazy as I am, my mind is open and I am prepared to
consider the hypothesis that Gladio does still exist in a new form;
that the politics of the USA is a farce controlled using blackmail
by the Dark
State; and that the basic premises of this fast-paced novel of
Sibel Edmonds are based on fact.
I'm not going to indulge in these wild conspiracy theories!!
I refuse to lower myself to level of these flat Earthers who
believe that the Moon landings were staged on a movie set in Area
51, and that the Moon is made of green cheese!
It is true that the evil of George W. Bush has
brought us this bizarre, seemingly never ending war against Islam
which, for us, only seems to take place in an abstract way on the
evening television. Yet for the people of Iraq, Syria, Libya, and
many other countries, it has brought perhaps millions of casualties.
Millions more are uprooted, fleeing as refugees, left destitute. On
the other hand, for what it is worth, as mentioned at the beginning
of this piece, the USA remains sufficiently free to allow Sibel
Edmonds write these things.
And this is the fourth Barchester novel. We
meet another aristocratic, ancient family in the Barchester
district: Lady Lufton of Framley Court, together with her
twenty-something son, Lord Lufton. But things really center on the
parson of Framley Village, Mark Robarts. Lady Lufton appointed him
to the position (or "living", as it was referred to in those days)
owing to the fact that he was a good friend of her son; they both
went to school and then to university together. And so Parson
Robarts shared with the young Lord Lufton the pleasures of country
life: riding horses, shooting, fox hunting, visiting with the other
great personalities round and about Barchester. He is also asked to
serve as a go-between in some unpleasant business involving debts
Lord Lufton has acquired with Mr. Sowerby, a politician who has
ruined his family estates through the corruption which accompanies
During a visit at the estate of the Duke of
Omnium (Lady Lufton's great enemy), Sowerby befriends Mark Robarts,
and in an unguarded moment invites him into his room in the evening
and asks him to sign a "bill" for 400 pounds which, according to
Sowerby, will not cost him anything, yet it will be a great help in
getting him (Sowerby) over a difficult time. And so the poor Parson
Robarts, whose annual salary is (a very generous, although needed to
support his wife, children, and respectable position at Framley
Village) 800 pounds per year, signs.
As I understand it, a "bill" was just an IOU,
meaning it looked as if the parson had been given 400 pounds in
exchange for the bill. In reality though, Sowerby, or rather the
holders of his immense debts, got the promise that the parson would
pay 400 pounds in six month's time, or so. Plus interest at 25%, or
50%, or something. Soon he owed 900 pounds. His life was in
disarray. But he kept this a secret from his wife and from Lady
Then another part of the story is that Mark
Robarts' sister Lucy comes to stay at the parsonage, and she and
Lord Lufton fall in love, much against the wishes of Lady Lufton.
All of these things run their courses. In the end, everything turns
out OK, and everybody, or at least almost everybody, lives happily
The moral of the story is: At all costs avoid
being corrupted by these evil politicians. And don't get into debt!
Most of the people we have met in the previous
"Chronicles of Barchester" make their appearances in this novel. I'm
not sure how far I will continue with all this Trollope stuff.
Looking at the Wikipedia article on Anthony Trollope, we see that
there are lots of further books. In addition to the six Barchester
novels, there are also six Palliser novels which apparently continue
the story as a long-running, Victorian kind of soap-opera. Clicking
away at the links in Wikipedia, I was able to get a gist of how
things develop. The characters become increasingly involved in
politics, and I see that Frank Gresham even becomes Prime Minister
of England halfway through the Palliser series.
I am enjoying reading these books of Trollope,
but rather than reading them all at once, I'll take them more
gradually from now on.
The Other, by David Guterson
There are numbers of reviews of this book
which you can find in the internet. I've linked to the review in the
New York Times here, which gives a good summary of the plot. But
somehow I enjoyed Guterson's earlier books more: Snow Falling on
Cedars especially, and Our Lady of the Forest.
This one deals with two teenagers who become
"blood brothers" in the woods around Seattle. The narrator comes
from a simple but close-knit family, while his friend's family is
very rich, but dysfunctional. They walk around the woods and
mountains, daring themselves to do dangerous things. The rich one
spouts immature literary and theological nonsense. His more
simple-minded friend studies literature at college to become a
school teacher. But the rich one decides to become a hermit,
somewhere in that cold, wet, Pacific Northwest rainforest. He tries
to live the life of a primitive cave-man, imagining that our hominid
ancestors, or perhaps Neanderthal Man, lived that way. But it
doesn't really work. The more serious friend keeps coming and
bringing him supplies to keep him alive. The hermit laughs at his
friend, telling him not to bother, scoffing at the futility of life.
He gradually wastes away, and one winter, snowed in for weeks, the
friend discovers that he has died. Later it is discovered that all
his riches - 440 million dollars - have been bequested to the school
What is the moral of all this? Do hundreds of
millions in wealth make you happy? Or do they make you crazy? Or it
is nice to think about being able to swim in huge amounts of money
when reading a modern American novel?
I was struck with the fact that the two friends
were continuously filling themselves with cannabis. At least half of
the supplies brought into the backwoods to the hermit every few
weeks seems to have consisted of cannabis. But that is illegal in
the USA, and unfortunately it is here in Germany as well.
Thankfully, more civilized people, such as the Dutch, have not
followed this prohibition, which, as I understand it, was brought
about by the big chemical companies such as DuPont, in order to sell
their unnatural products which have replaced hemp, and by the big
pharmaceutical companies which sell their drugs which are more
profitable than cannabis. Weren't these two young fellows afraid of
being thrown into the vast prison system of the USA, where they
would be threatened with violence, homosexual rape, and all those
other horrors? After all, everybody knows that the USA imprisons a
far higher proportion of its population than any other country, and
most of the people are there for nonviolent "drug" offenses. But
then, thinking about it, I thought that the story might be realistic
after all. After all, these were two "white" rich kids, and so the
police would stay away from them. I suppose it's a different story
for "black", or Latino, or (native American) Indian kids. They would
expect the full force of Justice.
Many years ago in Canberra I lived for a while in
a block of single-roomed apartments for we post-graduate students.
Above the stove was a row of cupboards, and one time I thought I
would put a couple of cannabis seeds in a dish, hidden in a
cupboard, to see if they would germinate. When coming back from the
Faculty I discovered that some workmen had gone through the
apartments looking through the cupboards, checking the ventilators
above the stoves, or something. This seemed to me to be a bad omen,
and so I threw my experiment away. But at least in those days, and
surely these days as well, Australians were a broad-minded, tolerant
This it the (English) title of the book by
the famous Japanese poet Matsuo
Basho, describing a walking tour in the year 1689, north from
Edo, or Tokyo as it is now called. Years ago I got a paperback
edition, and I have often reread it. It is a beautiful book. He
meditates upon nature, visits Buddhist shrines, stays with fellow
poets and creates linked verses with them. Interspersed in the prose
are those occasional short Japanese poems, haiku. Everything is
peaceful, tranquil. And yet the present book is the opposite of
this. It describes horrible, disgusting things. Australian prisoners
of war working on the Thailand-Burma
Railway - or Death Railway.
How can we reconcile the Japanese mindset of
World War II with the poetry of Basho? Well, I suppose war is always
horrible. Everyone knows that the Germans were extremely horrible
during the Nazi period. But it is possible to imagine how that came
about: a feeling of betrayal at the end of the First World War; of
injustice about the terms of the Versailles agreements; financial
ruin, exploitation, and yet massive gains by a few at the expense of
others during the hyperinflation of 1921-24. Then after some
recovery, the Great Depression came, and during an election in 1933
a third of the voters voted for the Nazi party. And that was that.
From then on, any dissenters would be thrown into prison camps and
tortured by the Gestapo. I'm sure it was true that most people, at
least in West Germany, experienced the end of World War II as a
liberation from 12 years of nightmare.
Now, almost 70 years on from the end of that
period, the occasional skin-head who says anything even slightly in
favor of anything associated with the Nazis is instantly and
universally reviled. Anybody who questions the right of asylum is
thought to be a dreadful, bigoted racist. And in fact it was
recently reported that as much as a third of the present-day
inhabitants of Germany are either themselves immigrants, or members
of the direct families of immigrants. This is true for many of the
other European countries as well, and especially for the
But in contrast to this, Japan permits almost no
immigration. Japanese war criminals who were responsible for
millions of tortures and deaths are honored in a shrine which the
Prime Minister of Japan has visited on an official pilgrimage. We
tend to think of the nations which lost World War II, particularly
Germany and Japan, to be the war criminals, while the winners,
possibly with the exception of Russia, to be just and humane. I
still subscribe to this picture, even though I'm sure things were
not always so black and white.
But who is a war criminal? Who is responsible if
things degenerate into a Death Railway, or a Nazi concentration
camp? Richard Flanagan is an Australian whose father was a prisoner
of war on the Death Railway, and so this novel has a very personal
meaning for him. Only the middle part is horrible. It is a story
with a beginning before the war, describing a great love, and the
last part describes the aftermath for many of the characters. Not
only how the Australian survivors cope with things, but also the
Japanese, many of whom are hanged for their crimes. The most brutal
guard was not Japanese, rather he was Korean. But the Japanese had
been equally brutal with him and with his country, and so he
couldn't understand why he should hang while the Americans embraced
with open arms the truly guilty war criminals.