Carlos Ruiz Zafon:
The Watcher in
W. Somerset Maugham:
The Painted Veil
Robert Louis Stevenson:
Herr Mozart wacht
The Sense of an
All That Is
The Gods of Guilt
John le Carré:
A Delicate Truth
Mysterious Affair at Styles
Jerome K. Jerome:
Three Men in a Boat
A Long Way Down
Martin Cruz Smith:
The Carp Castle
The Rosie Project
How to be Good
J. Bernard Walker:
The Magic Mountain
Christina Baker Kline:
The Way We Live Now
The Lone Gladio
Narrow Road to the Deep North
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 professional
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
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 Stevenson.
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 colony.
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 scandal.
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
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 Somerset Maugham.
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 the Aqua
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
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 printing.
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
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
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 young Count
Franz von Walsegg in memory of the Count's deceased wife Anna. Yet
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 far future.
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 University.
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, retarded baby.
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: Hello!...
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
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 intriguing!
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 gifts.
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
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 love.
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
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 questions.
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
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 political elite.
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 absurd.
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 business.
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 success.
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
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
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 broken.
- 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.
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
Anyway, the plot of Gorky Park seemed to me to be
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 character.
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 Mikhail
Kalinin, a pal of Stalin who survived Stalin's purges. Kalinin's wife
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
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
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 student.
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 read.
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 people.
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
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 - the Bull.
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 everywhere.
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
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
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 reviewed above.
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 bush.
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 the book.
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 arrive.
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 seriously.
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 knows?
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
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 alone.
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
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
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
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
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 and Indians.
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 successful life?
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 fact William
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 human endeavor.
The Warden, by Anthony Trollope
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
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 Copperfield.
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
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 Squire Gresham.
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
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
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
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 badness away.
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 public life.
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 ever after.
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 teacher.
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
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 people.
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 Scandinavian
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.