Small House at Allington
The Last Chronicle of Barset
Any Human Heart
on the Train
with the Angel
Karen Joy Fowler:
We Are All
Completely Beside Ourselves
How to be Both
and Robert Louis Stevenson:
The Green Line
Be Frank With You
The Lay of
Cock, or The Man Who Died
Women in Love
Testament of Mary
Talented Mr. Ripley
Phyllis T. Smith:
I Am Livia
Deadly Space Between
A Time for
Dying & Living in
the Arms of Love
Mountain in Tibet
The Price of
The Summer Son
John le Carré:
Illusion and Deception
with no Past
L. Sprague de Camp:
The Short Drop
This is the fifth novel in
Trollope's "Chronicles of Barsetshire". It is a change of pace. Up
to now the romantic stories within these Chronicles have been of
devoted, warmhearted young couples, facing adversary, yet in the end
coming sublimely together - with, of course, the glaring exception
of Griselda Grantly and Lord Dumbello. But this time the story is of
devious characters, causing chaos and heartbreak. (Griselda and her
husband, Dumbello, were both so dumb that they fitted well together
in later married life, thus avoiding both chaos and heartbreak.)
We mainly follow Lily Dale and Adolphus Crosbie.
Lily is only 19, a girl in the country, the niece of the local
squire. The squire's nephew and heir, Bernard Dale, comes to stay at
the Big House at Allington for a couple of weeks, bringing with him
his friend Crosbie. But everybody except Lily can see that Crosbie
is a shallow, dandified "swell", whose income as a relatively highly
placed civil servant in London of £800 per year is enough to support
his pretenses as a bachelor in the city, but it is too little to
enable him to live sensibly as a married dandy. Nevertheless, he
allows himself to fall in love with Lily, and they become engaged to
be married. He expects that the squire will provide him with a
couple of hundred extra pounds, but these hopes are disappointed.
And so he leaves Allington to spend the last week of his holidays
with the de Courcy's, that degenerate noble family we have gotten to
know in the earlier Chronicles of Barsetshire. Lily sees him off in
an outpouring of euphoric, loving emotion. The calculating Adolphus
Crosbie remembers the advances Lady Alexandrina de Courcy has made
to him in the previous London season, and he weighs his chances with
her. Arriving at the castle, he has various scenes with Lady
Alexandrina, and soon he is engaged to her as well. But she is not
somebody to be so easily jilted. The angry Earl de Courcy tells
Crosbie in no uncertain terms that he must marry Alexandrina, and he
will not receive one penny from the de Courcy's, who are in chronic
So we follow Crosbie and Lady Alexandrina to
London where he must accumulate huge debts for a house, furniture,
clothes for Lady Alexandrina, food, wines... All beyond his means.
In the cold light of day he realizes that Lady Alexandrina is an
ugly, unpleasant, arrogant person. She hates him and he hates her.
His life is in ruins. Oh, if he had only stayed with Lily!
In the end, Lady Alexandrina escapes with her
mother and older, spinster sister, away from London, and away from
the horrible Earl de Courcy, to Baden Baden, where they impatiently
await the death of the Earl. And Crosbie returns to his bachelor
life in London, a reduced man.
Then we also have Johnny Eames, who has known and
loved Lily since childhood. He has become a lowly placed civil
servant in London with only £80 per year, and thus he had been
unable to propose to Lily since he could only offer her a life of
poverty. But his cause is taken up by the Lord de Guest, another
landed aristocrat in the neighborhood, and so his prospects seem to
improve. But Lily, despite everything, maintains that she loved that
foolish Crosbie, and she will continue to love him, forever. And
thus the book ends in this unsatisfactory state of affairs.
I have started on the sixth, and final, volume of
these Chronicles, hoping to see if Lily might yield to reason, and
to her heart, and come beautifully together with Johnny. But being
unable to wait so long, I looked up the Wikepedia entry for The
Last Chronicle of Barset, and I see that Lily remains
stubbornly aloof to the end.
Most of the characters we have gotten to
know up to now come together in this "Last Chronicle". Things center
on two totally obstinate people: Lily Dale and Josiah Crawley. The
Lily Dale story continues the narrative from the previous chronicle,
where she keeps poor Johnny Eames waiting on her by telling him that
she loves him more than she will ever love any other man. But still
she refuses to think of marriage. And so Johnny involves himself
with one or two silly romantic intrigues in London which only served
to describe his frustration and to interrupt the general flow of the
As for Josiah Crawley, we are told in great
detail how he suffers from his poverty, since his lowly position as
a curate only brings in £130 per year. He sees that most of his
religious colleagues get many times this sum, despite the fact that
they have fewer qualifications. (The example of Mark Robarts is
particularly galling to the poor Josiah Crowley.) These thoughts,
and the continuous small debts he has with the local tradespeople
drive him to despair, and he often feels that he is losing his mind.
He discovers a check for £20 written on somebody's name floating
about in his papers, and he uses it to attempt to pay the butcher's
bill. But where did he get the check? Did he steal it? He can't
remember, and so he is accused of theft. What a scandal! Will he be
thrown into jail? His family is in disgrace.
At least this leads to the daughter, Grace
Crawley, getting together with Archdeacon Grantly's son, Major Henry
Grantly. The scandal with the father makes the relationship of the
daughter also scandalous, but in the end we find out that the check
was legitimately given by Mrs. Arabin to the Reverend Crawley, and
so everything is OK. The result is that he receives an appointment
to a different parish where his yearly income doubles. Thus the
Crawleys progress from disgrace to modest comfort.
After having read all of this, I thought I would
try and find some descriptions - not just in novels - of how typical
people were able to live in Victorian England on various classes of
incomes. I found this
internet site which includes a section entitled "Family
Budgets". Clicking on that, we find recommended budgets for families
with different levels of income, from £500 per year down to
£150 per year. And then for working class families with less than
that, we have weekly budgets. £150 is described as typical for a
"lower middle class" family, such as for a skilled mechanic, and
also for a curate (as was the case with Josiah Crawley). The budget
described was for a man in London. He could not afford the rents in
the middle of town, so it is assumed that he lives in the suburbs. A
rent of about £31 per year is assumed. But then to get in to work in
the city each day, it is assumed that his expenses for railway
travel will be about £7 per year. This leaves him with only about
£110 for everything else.
Contrast this with the situation of the Reverend
Crawley. He has no rent, since the house comes with the position,
and no traveling expenses, since he lives next to the church in his
parish. Clearly he was not living in opulent splendor, but it is
unclear to me why he was getting himself into debt. Particularly
when we consider that the Dean, Mr. Arabin, and also the elder Lady
Lufton were often contributing sizable sums to the Crawley family.
Of course the Reverend Crawley was frustrated by the fact that the
Church of England had such an unfair system of emoluments. But that
doesn't explain his debts. Obviously Anthony Trollope knew what he
was talking about, since, after all, he lived back then. Still, my
understanding of the story might have been increased if he had
thought to include, perhaps in an appendix for modern readers in
this age of inflation, a table, detailing the yearly expenses of the
A simple, beautifully told story. At first
things take place in South Africa. All that apartheid stuff is
finished and people are progressing into the future with open minds,
no longer encumbered by those bad memories of the past. Julie is a
20 something young woman. Her father swims in money. Finance,
corruption. Only money counts. His friends are white, black
Africans, Indians, whatever, as long as they keep things rolling
along. Her mother has long since divorced the father. She lives in
California with some sort of casino tycoon. And so Julie feels that
she has no real family. Instead she has a circle of friends at the
"L A Cafe", or, as Gordimer refers to it: the "EL AY Cafe". They are
not all white South Africans. They are open to everything. And then
she has a job organizing things for visiting pop singers, or
Rather than driving a Ferrari, or a Maserati,
which would suit the taste of her father, she drives a broken-down,
second hand car in order to fit in nicely with her friends at "The
Table" of the EL AY Cafe. One day, when driving in, the car breaks
down on the street near the Cafe. Panic! But by giving the shady
types hanging out on the street sufficient cash, they ferry her to a
garage in the neighborhood, and a fellow there, a mechanic who calls
himself Abdu, takes charge.
And so things develop. She quickly summons Abdu
to her bed, he brings his belongings away from the back room at the
garage where he had been sleeping, to her small flat in a
middle-class part of town (not the gated community of her father),
and they move in together. All the open-minded people of The Table
accept him as one of them. It seems Abdu is an illegal immigrant
from some Arab country. Abdu is not his real name. That is a secret
in order to hide from the immigration authorities of South Africa.
After a while, Abdu asks Julie to introduce him to her father, and
so they are invited to an afternoon get-together in the father's
palatial house with all his monied friends. Abdu is blithely
accepted as Julie's latest acquisition.
But suddenly the immigration authorities get on
to Abdu. He is given two weeks notice to leave the country. Hectic
confusion. Lawyers. Does her father have any connections which will
help? No. Abdu must return home to his Arab family. Julie organizes
an air ticket for him, but she buys two, one for herself as well.
But then Abdu says that if she comes, she must marry him first. She
does, and they fly into the Arab country and his family as man and
wife. We find out that Abdu's real name is Ibrahim.
Unfortunately, Nadine Gordimer doesn't tell us
which country this is. Everything is desert. Sand. It couldn't be
Libya, since at the time Gordimer wrote the book, before the people
around that pathetic Obama decided to destroy the country and turn
it into a chaos of anarchy, Libya was one of the most prosperous
countries in Africa, perhaps exceeding South Africa. Algeria also
didn't seem right. Mali, Niger, or Chad didn't fit. Maybe we should
think of the Arab north of Sudan. In any case, Ibrahim has a large,
extended family, and they welcome him and his wife Julie.
The uncle is the rich one in their family. He has
a large car dealership and contracts for the repairs of government
vehicles. The uncle has no son, and eventually he offers Ibrahim the
position of manager of the firm, with the understanding that he will
inherit it when the uncle dies. But Ibrahim wants nothing to do with
He spends his time going to the consulates of
Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the U.S.A., month in, month out,
desperately trying to get a visa. Paying bribes. Life at home is
meaningless. He dreams of becoming a modern "success", like Julie's
father. Against Julie's wishes, he writes a begging letter to her
mother, and it seems that her new, casino husband writes some sort
of letter which gives him the visa to the U.S.A. which he craves. He
is euphoric. A new life in the New World! But what will he do in the
New World? Julie has often traveled there. California. Europe.
Whatever. She knows that Ibrahim can look forward to nothing better
than becoming a janitor, cleaning toilets. Living in a slum. The
U.S.A. is the most brutal place there is for immigrants. According
to a recent study, the fantasy of the "American Dream", from
dishwasher to millionaire, is virtually nonexistent these days,
especially for Arabs. Social mobility in Obama's U.S.A. is much
less than in other countries.
And so Julie refuses to go with Ibrahim. She
stays with his family who have adopted her, and where she feels at
home for the first time in her life. At the end of the book, Ibrahim
leaves for his life in the dregs of the U.S.A., and the formula is
agreed that Julie will follow once he becomes "established".
We sympathize with Julie, but I can understand
Ibrahim. How unpleasant it would be to live in a country where
religion is more than just a quaint expression of ancient folklore.
The narrator is a (relatively) young
English woman named Hope Clearwater. There are basically two stories
here, which get more or less mixed up together. First of all, she
marries a mathematician, John Clearwater. The book came out in 1990,
and so this John Clearwater is concerned with the popular things
back then: chaos theory, catastrophe theory. After he goes crazy,
but before he drowns himself in a lake, he fiddles briefly with
topology. All of this allows William Boyd to pepper the text with
numbers of more or less questionable applications of such matters to
After we have gotten rid of John, Hope is now
free to go off on her own researches in the realms of ecology,
ethology, and in general the chaos and catastrophes associated with
humanity. That is to say, she is observing the behavior of
chimpanzees in a jungle somewhere in Africa, perhaps in the Congo,
following in the famous footsteps of Jane Goodall.
But unlike Jane Goodall, she is not alone. Chimpanzee research has
advanced, and the researchers have formed themselves into a little
colony in the jungle. Lots of post docs, articles in National
The great guru is named Eugene Mallabar. He
founded this research colony 25 years ago, and he is the
acknowledged world expert in the field of primate behavior. Thus his
early researches took place during the swinging sixties, or perhaps
the psychedelic seventies. All ya need is love. Da da daa da... All
the living creatures of this beautiful Earth, apart from evil
humanity, live in perfect loving harmony with one another. People
are destroying the world. Therefore we should Save The World
so that everything will return to its original, natural state of
All of these thoughts are indeed very lovely, but
unfortunately - perhaps due to the evil of mathematics - the world
turns out to be not so nice after all. Hope discovers that there is
a war going on between two groups of chimpanzees. They kill
each other in horrible ways, sometimes exalting in the lust of
violence. Is this shocking news? Nature being just as bad as
humanity? For Eugene Mallabar it was. After walking into the jungle
together with Hope and seeing a chimpanzee murder, his first
reaction is to think that Hope has herself brought this Evil into
his perfect world. He turns around and tries to punch her, half
missing, but hitting her heavily in her shoulder. She falls to the
ground. He tries to hit her with a log, but she scrambles away and
runs for life. She escapes, but in the drive back to the capital
city in the Landrover she is kidnapped by some soldiers taking part
in the (human) civil war of the country. And so the story continues
on to its conclusion, with Hope shacked up on Brazzaville Beach,
away from all those violent animals and people, contemplating the
eternity of the sand and the surf, and the complexities of
Some people might say that, well, OK, chimpanzees
might be evil owing to the fact that they are our nearest relatives
in the animal kingdom, and thus they are tainted with our
evil. Perhaps such people would say that, at least, gorillas seem to
be loving and gentle. Not so. They sometimes
murder one another too. The reality is that the world is as it
is. Nature simply does not recognize the concepts of good and evil.
And so this book was an interesting read. But I
enjoyed Boyd's faster paced adventure stories: Restless, Ordinary
Thunderstorms... Maybe I should try another William Boyd
This is a novel written as if it were a
collection of the very personal journals of a character named Logan
Mountstuart, added to now and then throughout his life from the time
he is 18 till his death at the age of 85. His life spans the 20th
century, from 1906-91. It seemed to me that things divided naturally
at the second world war, so in the first half, particularly in the
1930s, Logan is an unpleasantly snobbish young English poser. Then
after the war we begin to connect with him, experiencing his ups and
During his youth, Logan is at school - it was
unclear whether he was boarding or if rather he was a day pupil -
and he tells us all about his two friends, Ben and Peter. In later
life, Ben becomes a wealthy, established art dealer in Paris and
Peter becomes a respected, knighted, best-seller author. Logan, who
was born in Uruguay to a Spanish mother and an English father, a
manager of a meat factory, has come to England as a young child and
experiences life in relative opulence. Much of his journals dwell on
the problems of money, and so we get a feeling for the values of
things in the days before inflation reduced English money to its
present level. (And of course Trollop's Last Chronicle of
Barsetshire, reviewed above, also dealt extensively with
Logan thinks much of himself, and he expects to
get a wonderful degree at Oxford, but in the end he is disappointed
to receive only a lowly third. Despite this, he publishes a
well-received biography of Shelley, and so he becomes a feted member
of the literary circles of Europe. We read about his imaginary
tête-à-têtes with all the famous people you can possibly think of
who were alive in the 1930s: Orwell, Joyce, Waugh, Hemingway,
Virgina Woolf, Picasso, the Duke of Windsor, etc., etc., etc., on
and on. His close personal ties with many of them made me think that
the book had degenerated into a literary version of the movie Forrest
During the war, Logan joins Navel Intelligence
and is sent by his commanding officer, Ian Fleming (of James Bond
fame) to the Bahamas to keep track of the Duke of Windsor. He
becomes involved in the Harry Oakes
murder scandal. He is recalled to London and sent on a
commando mission to Switzerland where he is immediately arrested and
thrown into a jail for two years. Perhaps the revenge of the Duke.
After finally being released, he returns to London to find that his
wife and daughter have been killed by a V2 rocket.
Up to now, we have experienced the snobby side of
Logan. He has had shallow affairs with various women, but now he
realizes the depth of the loss of Freya, his wife, and Stella, the
young daughter. His life goes on; he becomes an art dealer in New
York; a lecturer in a university in Nigeria at the time of the
Biafran war; a destitute English pensioner with random contacts to
the German Baader-Meinhoff gang; and in the end an English ex-pat in
an old farmhouse in the south of France. It was all beautifully
written, very sad. And so we leave the book reminiscing about the
past, the 20th century.
Many of Logan's experiences - art, love,
philosophy - take place in Paris. But what is Paris today? I can
only think of those disgusting "je suis Charlie" people! And
what is art these days? Nothing more than absurd collections of
rubbish scattered on the floor, or mindless video clips running in
endless loops on old vacuum tube TVs. But at least literature is
still alive in the 21st century, as exemplified by this book of
This is a murder mystery in young, married,
suburban London. There are basically three women and two men
involved in the whole business. The women narrate things according
to their various perspectives, from chapter to chapter. But the two
men, both of whom are selfish, violent, and dangerous -
characteristics which the three women seem to find irresistible - do
not have the opportunity to tell us their views on the whole story.
Be that as it may, the principle narrator,
Rachael, was unable to become pregnant despite the best efforts of
her husband Tom. She sought comfort in alcohol, and so we meet her
at the beginning of the book riding back and forth on a commuter
train through the London suburbs, swilling cans of gin and tonic,
bottles of wine, whiskey, and what have you. She stares through an
alcoholic fog at the old house adjoining the tracks which she shared
with Tom. But now Tom has a new woman living in the house: Anna, who
has a baby. In order to help out around the house, Megan, the young
woman down the street in a house which also adjoins the tracks comes
regularly to Tom and Anna's house. She soon becomes pregnant by Tom.
Thus Anna, in turn, begins to take to drink.
One drunken night, Rachael staggers out of the
train and wanders along the street. The next morning she wakes in a
stupor, unable to remember anything. But in the real world, Megan
has been murdered. So the book follows the developments from there.
With all her drinking, Rachael has become an unattractive, rather
flabby woman. Despite this, at one stage she does end up in bed with
Scott, Megan's husband. The police believe Scott was the murderer.
Or maybe it was Megan's young, attractive psychiatrist? And what
All of this drunkenness, vomit, bleeding cuts and
bruises and all the other depressing consequences of alcoholism made
for an unattractive story. But I see that the newspaper reviewers of
the book were enthusiastic, and I did read through to the final
battering, finding out which of the men was the murderer.
This is a collection of short stories put
together by Nick Hornby, where he says in the Foreword that the
various authors are people he knew and admired. He also says that by
buying the book, the reader has contributed towards the maintenance
of a certain school in England which specializes in teaching
children who suffer from autism. Nick Hornby tells us that his son
Danny is autistic, and he tells us what a dreadful thing it can be,
both for the child having the condition and also for its family. How
wonderful it is to have a school which specializes in dealing with
such children. I think the book was published 10 or 15 years ago. In
contrast, here in Germany the government has recently decreed -
based upon some order from the heights of the European Union
Bureaucracy - that such children are no longer to be allowed to have
the privilege of such special schooling. Instead they are to be
dumped into the middle of a normal classroom to add to the problems
of everyday teaching, and presumably to suffer the taunts of their
schoolmates. The EU-speak for this business is the word "inclusion".
I pity the poor autistic children who are to suffer under this
regime, and also their teachers.
As far as the book is concerned, most of the
stories, keeping with this theme, are concerned with children in
more or less crazy situations. I'm writing this a week or two after
finishing the book, and to be honest, I've forgotten most of it. The
author of one story was Colin Firth. That name rang a bell, since we
did go to see the movie "The King's Speech" a year or two ago. But
the story he wrote had no substance, and it dragged on for too many
pages. A couple of the other stories were interesting, but by far
the best was Nick Hornby's own short story, "NippleJesus".
This was suggested as the next book for our
reading circle. I can't imagine that I would have chosen it if I
were just browsing in the bookshop by myself, looking at the cover
and the blurbs on the back. Still, now I have read it.
To begin with, before starting off on the journey
through the book, the reader knows that it has something to do with
a family which has taken in an infant chimpanzee and placed it
alongside a human baby, a child of the family. There have been
numbers of families which have done this. The first such example
seems to have been the Kellogg
family in 1931. They were Americans, as most of the other such
families seem to have been. I suppose the husband was usually a
professor of something or other, and he was keen to use his own baby
in an experiment, measuring the rate of progress in growing up for
humans in comparison with chimpanzees. Since, according to genetic
analysis, the chimpanzee is the closest species in the animal
kingdom to humanity, the professor might expect interesting results,
producing a flock of published papers and thus career advancement.
I'm not sure what the mothers of the human babies in all these
experiments thought. I should think that they would be worried about
how their babies might suffer. However in this book, the mother of
the human baby loved the chimpanzee baby more than her own
offspring. At the moment we have our little grandson often staying
with us, and when he is here he is the middle point of our lives.
Thus I find the idea of such a mother to be both bizarre and
unnatural, to say the least.
In a way, you could say that I was also involved
in a similar experiment when I was small. I had a dog who grew up
with me, and I loved the dog more than anything. But my dog and I
were not the objects of a bizarre experiment, since my mother loved
me more than the dog, and after he died, I got over it. In contrast
with the narrator of the book, I'm not still crying about the lost
life of my dog now, 50 years after he has passed away. Besides, it
was normal for children, and even for grownups, to have dogs.
Since this book seems to have had lots of very
positive reviews, it would seem that many people rate chimpanzees
higher than dogs. I suppose such people think that it would be
interesting to be able to speak with a chimpanzee in some way. They
imagine that they might be able to teach a baby chimpanzee human
language - sign language - and then have an interesting conversation
with the chimpanzee.
So what would such a conversation look like?
Would there be lots of fun and laughs playing with words as we do
with our grandson? Or would there be a deep philosophical discussion
concerning the beliefs of chimpanzees about death, spirituality, the
beauty of mathematics, and what have you? Quite honestly, I don't
think any of this would apply. In reality I know that language is
the unique achievement of humanity, and chimpanzees have just as
much, or just as little, to say to us as do dogs. I don't need to
spend years ruining the life of a chimpanzee baby, or a human baby,
to know this.
And dogs have very much to say to us if we are
only prepared to listen!
But getting into the book, at first we have the
character Rosemary attending college in Davis, California, and she
goes on and on about all the unspeakables concerning her lost
"sister". This confused me until it was revealed that the "sister"
is Fern, the chimpanzee (obviously I do
not think about my childhood dog as being my lost "brother").
Then there is Rosemary's (human) older brother Lowell. He ran away
from home at the time the poor Fern was dumped from the family to
be put in a cage, together with a group of horribly aggressive
older chimpanzees. Thus Lowell becomes a passionate campaigner
against cruelty to animals. He breaks in to research institutions
where animals are being tormented in the name of "science",
letting them free, disrupting things. And so he becomes a most
wanted man by the FBI, hiding "underground".
Well, I can appreciate that story.
Then, finally, the story is all about feminism.
Everything becomes a question of male versus female. Males (except
for the ethereal, angelic, hardly human Lowell) are evil, and
females are good.
Unfortunately, I belong to the wrong half of
humanity, at least according to the book. I don't know if I would
be a feminist if I were to belong to the other half, but somehow,
I doubt it.
My observation when jogging around the place
here is that most people walking their dogs are middle-aged to
elderly women. I don't know if they are childless, or if their
children have left the house leaving an emotional vacuum which
they fill with a dog. Equally, you could say that my childhood dog
was filling my emotional vacuum. Perhaps it is true that modern
society leaves many people alone, unfulfilled. Dogs do provide a
solace. And it is not an evil thing to keep a dog. They have
developed a symbiotic relationship with people over thousands of
years. But the same cannot be said for chimpanzees.
Looking for something else to read, I
came upon the list
of books which were shortlisted for the Booker Prize last
year. I did read Flanagan's book, which won the prize, and I have
just read the chimpanzee book, which, as you see above, I didn't
think was all that wonderful, before getting this one. From the
description and all the ecstatic reviews I thought the present
book might be interesting, so I had it instantly downloaded via
Amazon's one click method (which they have apparently patented, as
if it is some sort of brilliant invention which nobody else would
otherwise have thought of - such is the degeneration of today's
world!) onto my Kindle.
Then I waded through the first 10% of the
book... and gave up.
OK. Nowadays it is smart to assemble
collections of words which aren't sentences into groups ending
with a period as if they were sentences, and then to mix up dialog
and narration into dreamy assemblages of words which often don't
make much sense.
The idea of the book is that we have a
renaissance painter who has presumably been spending the last 500
years between his death back then and his awakening now in some
kind of purgatory. Well, I presume it would take a while to get
things going after a 500 year sleep, or whatever purgatory is
supposed to be. But this does not seem to me to be a sufficient
reason for the author to burden the reader with so much disjointed
After putting the book away and reading
something else (by Nick Hornby, which I review below) I thought I
would look at some of the reviews in Amazon. The people who gave
the book 4 or 5 stars wrote that after the initial confusion, the
text does does actually begin to become rational, telling some
sort of story. And so I have just now tried reading on through the
book in order to see if it does pick up. Indeed, between the 10
and 12 percentage marks the text does actually get into a story
about the hero's experiences in an Italian brothel, where he
distinguishes himself by drawing pictures of the prostitutes
rather than doing what these people usually do in such a
situation. But after a half an hour or so I have again just given
up. The story doesn't interest me. Are these fantasies of Ali
Smith concerning the inner life of a renaissance painter
believable? Who knows.
I can't understand how this book, and also the
book of Karen Joy Fowler about the chimpanzee, can have been
selected for the shortlist of the Booker Prize.
In a way a sad book. It's about two
people, Rob and Laura, but lots of other people are in it as well,
confusing everything. Both Rob and Laura are getting along in
life. They are in their mid 30s.
At the beginning we learn that they are
breaking up, and so Rob tells us about all of his experiences with
women. Girls at school, more complicated arrangements at
university... He always imagines that he has been the loser. It's
always the fault of the other one. During his time at university
he was together with one woman for two years, but then she just
left him for somebody else. And so he quit before finishing and
just ended up being a DJ in a loosely organized dance session in a
pub somewhere in London, working in a record shop during the day.
Now he has a record shop of his own. A dead
end. After all, who buys records these days? I think the book was
first published 10 or 15 years ago, but even then records, or CDs,
were hardly modern. Of course it is all about pop music. I have
almost no idea at all about the pop music of the last 40 odd
years, and so when Nick Hornby goes on about who were the 5
greatest bands, or singers, or whatever in some genre or another,
it means nothing to me. As a child in the 1950s and 60s, I
listened to all the songs coming out of the radio. And I was still
listening to pop music up to the time the Beatles came out with
their psychedelic album - I forget what it was called. But beyond
that, I lost interest totally. As
a student back in the 1970s I started playing the flute, and
now, in retirement, I've set myself the project of learning to
play the viol.
The concept of "high fidelity" music first came
up, I think, in the 1950s with those old vinyl LP records, and
amplifiers which used transistors rather than vacuum tubes. The
idea was that the sounds produced by these new systems reflected
the original sounds with greater fidelity than the old scratchy,
wheezy machines which had previously been used. These days it has
apparently become modern to declare that the sound of a CD is not
the "real" sound. Recording studios manipulate recordings in all
sorts of ways, and the feeling is that the old vinyl is more real.
But of course the only true "high fidelity" music is given by
actually listening to musicians performing in a concert, seeing
how they play, feeling their emotions. Unfortunately though, a
live concert of pop music these days apparently involves going to
a huge stadium together with thousands of other people in order to
be overwhelmed with megawatts of amplified noise at the painful
level of 120 decibels or more.
As Rob points out in the book, pop music is
almost exclusively concerned with the transient emotions of love.
This was his reality. How could he live on with Laura if he was
continuously seeing young women who were awakening in him the
emotions of his 5 all time greatest pop records? Despite the fact
that almost none of this was familiar to me, I still enjoyed the
fun of Nick Hornby's writing. In the end it seems that at the age
of 35 or so, Rob is finally growing up. And Laura is still
prepared to have him.
by Lloyd Osbourne and Robert Louis Stevenson
A Christmas present was an illustrated
book about Robert Louis Stevenson. Throughout the book were
illustrations - mainly photos of Stevenson - on the left-hand side
pages, and on the facing, right-hand side, were short descriptions
of the photos and of his life from the time he was a child up
until his final days in the South Pacific.
Stevenson married the much older Fanny Van de
Grift in 1880 when he was 29 years old. She was 40 and her son Lloyd was
12 years old. Perhaps Fanny was a bit like a mother to both of them.
In any case, Stevenson invented his famous Treasure Island
by telling the story to his step-son. Then in 1888, with the success
of that book, the family set off from San Francisco in a chartered
sailboat, the Casco, for the South Seas. There are a couple
of nice photos in the book, showing the gaff-rigged Casco
under sail. Just a low-lying schooner with the deck at most 3
or 4 feet above the water-line. I suppose the boat was at most 60
feet long. At first they sailed to the Marquesas Islands, then on to
that dense collection of atolls east of Tahiti, the Tuamotu Archipelago,
then Tahiti itself, then northwards to Hawaii. All of this is very
interesting. Later they cruised about on other ships in the westward
South Pacific, also visiting Sydney, but then ending up in Samoa.
Stevenson wrote another book, describing all of this, In the South Seas,
which I have also been reading.
Today we think of those isolated atolls and
volcanic islands scattered throughout the vast Pacific as being a
vision of paradise. Some of the islands are owned by Hollywood
stars, or Silicon Valley billionaires. But back in 1888, things were
different. Stevenson tells us that whereas in former times some of
the islands were densely populated, now the population dwindles,
death is everywhere. The people have little resistance to all of the
imported diseases. We see pictures of him, with his smiling, weak
but pleasant eyes, speaking with tribes people, posing with others,
with presumably Lloyd photographing everything. Not long before,
cannibalism was common in the islands. He tells us the stories which
the people tell him. One
photo is of the people of the Casco all together,
having a magnificent feast with King Kalakaua of Hawaii. (Of course
in those days, Hawaii was an independent country.) In many of these
photos, Stevenson's mother appears, always wearing her mourning
attire, with her headpiece in the style of Queen Victoria - although
Mrs. Stevenson was certainly a much more elegant person than the
elderly, stout Victoria.
But turning to the present book, it was written
jointly by Stevenson and his step-son Lloyd Osbourne. I enjoyed it.
In a way the story is another Treasure Island tale, but this time a
more realistic one. Three degenerate men "on the beach" in Tahiti
take command of a small sailing ship and they end up in the lagoon
of an atoll of the Tuamotus. There they fall under the spell of an
Englishman, a religious fanatic. In the end, two of them die and the
third becomes a lost disciple on this lonely spot in the middle of
the vast ocean, sealing the fate of his hopeless life.
The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
The story is narrated by three women in
Jackson, Mississippi, in the years 1962-63. Aibileen and Minny are
black domestic servants and Skeeter is the white daughter of a
wealthy plantation owner. Skeeter has recently graduated
from Ole Miss (that is to say, the University of Mississippi) with a
degree in literature. She is back at home on the old plantation, not
really knowing what to do. She feels a bit out of things. She
regularly takes part in playing bridge with her married, female
school friends (of course all of them are white and all of them are
horribly snobby) at their homes, being waited on by the hired help.
In this case by the black servant, Aibileen.
The book starts off with an unpleasant discussion
amongst the bridge players concerning the fact that in some houses,
the black domestic help must use the toilet in the guest bathroom,
despite the fact that the bridge players themselves are also called
upon to use the very same toilet. Hilly, who was Skeeter's best
friend, says that, of course, one must have a separate toilet for
these black, or "nigra" people. Preferably out the back somewhere,
or at least in the garage or the carport. After all, according to
Hilly, these nigra people carry all sorts of diseases in their body
fluids which could contaminate the pure white bodies of the "normal"
I suppose such a conversation would not have been
unusual in Mississippi in 1962. I don't know if it is a common theme
these days. Perhaps. Or perhaps not, since I imagine that the
practice of keeping domestic servants must have become too expensive
for almost all white women in today's Mississippi. In any case,
Skeeter found the discussion to be beneath her taste.
In the naïve excitement of finishing her degree,
Skeeter replied to an advertisement for a position as editor at a
New York publishing house. Surprisingly, somebody answered her
letter, telling her that her application was nonsense and she would
have to work her way up in the publishing business, for example at
the local newspaper, before even thinking of applying for such an
exalted position in New York. It was also suggested that she write
about something which she might find to be interesting. As
Thus Skeeter submitted a boring list of
possible subjects. Her New York correspondent told her in no
uncertain terms that her list was, in fact, boring. And so, thinking
of other possible subjects, and given the excitement and violence of
the civil rights movement in the Deep South in 1962, Skeeter
proposed as her theme to the New York publisher that she interview
various black maids of her acquaintance, having them tell their
stories, and put these stories together into a book. This is the
story of the book. (Skeeter's book, in this book, has the title
"Help" together with a subtitle, rather than the title "The Help",
as in this real book which I have actually bought with real money.)
Well, I enjoyed reading it. Lots of tension. Are
the maids who tell their stories going to be killed by the Klu Klux
Klan? Or will they have their tongues cut out? (According to the
book, that was the horrible fate of other black people at that
time.) But in the end, thankfully, nothing like that happened.
The book left me with numbers of unresolved
questions. The author, Kathryn
Stockett, grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, went to the
University of Alabama (not Ole Miss), studied literature, went to
New York and worked in the publishing business. So we see where the
Miss Skeeter character comes from, with all her ambitions. But is it
plausible that the maids back in 1962-63 would work with such a
white woman? Some of them had college degrees, just like Skeeter.
Surely if we have the fiction of a woman writing such a book then it
would have been more satisfying to have had one of the black woman
writing it rather than this alter ego of the white author.
But then, getting away from all the horrible
racial violence of the United States, this book made me think about
the circumstances of domestic help in other settings. In England in
former times it was usual to have a servant around the house. How
pleasant that must have been for the householder. Probably not so
pleasant for the domestic servant. These days, a normal income is
not enough to maintain a household. It is certainly not enough to
pay for somebody to come and help with the cleaning or the cooking.
Instead it is usual for both the husband and the wife to go to work,
leaving the house empty during the day. The children are put into
nurseries or kindergartens. Cleaning and cooking are reduced to a
minimum. Life consists of frozen fast foods, and what have you. What
I found this internet
site, describing the financial situation in the United States
back in the year 1960. We see that the average income was something
over $5,000 per year. An average house cost $12,700. A car $2,600. A
family could live comfortably, free of debt, on a single income.
Compare that with the situation today. A house costs 10 times the
normal income. A car the greater part. And so, in order to obtain
these things, a family of today saddles itself with huge debts, many
times its yearly income. There is the illusion that these debts are
manageable, owing to the fact that the central banks have created
negative real interest rates - a crazy experiment which has never
before been attempted in the history of the financial world. Who
knows where it will end? Even in the 1930s - which we are told was
the midst of the "Great Depression" - things were much better than
they are now, as we see in this summary.
The author was (is?) a Chicago lawyer.
And the story involves an ambitious Chicago lawyer in her
30s who lives in a suburb along the shore of Lake Michigan, north of
town, where the rich people live. To get from her office in her
legal firm back to her house, she must take the brown line of the
Chicago "L" transport system. It is late at night. She is an
associate of her law firm, and her ambition is to become a partner.
So she is working through the night, as she often does. 80 or even
100 hours a week. But despite all the pressure, now, late at night,
she wants to quickly get home to grab just a few hours of sleep. At
the L station in town, by mistake she boards a train of the green
line, rather than the brown line. This goes directly west,
into the slums. Suddenly she is alone in the carriage, together with
a gang of threatening black youths. It is nearly midnight on a cold
winter night; her cell phone battery is dead; help seems far away.
She jumps out the door just as the train is leaving a station,
escaping the gang. She stumbles down the stairs onto the street and
finds a bar which is open. Something is going on. She finds the
corpse of a prostitute in the lady's room. She runs for life and is
pursued distantly by a figure with blond hair.
And so begins this fast paced detective story
about a group of corrupt policeman in Chicago. I enjoyed reading it.
The author seems to know what she is writing about.
This is a collection of four stories, or
novellas, which are really all part of the same thing, so they
might as well be four chapters in a few weeks of the life of the
narrator, Frank Bascombe, who is 68 years old. It seems that the
author, Richard Ford, has written a whole series of these Frank
Bascombe novels. Perhaps I might read a few of the others, where
Frank is younger, more middle-aged.
Well, in the present book, Frank is surrounded by
old, dying people. He himself seems pretty fragile. Everything is
falling apart; he wonders if life is still worth living...
But I don't think 68 is very old. I'm now 67,
soon to turn 68. Retirement is wonderful. I run a couple of miles
every couple of days. It is now April, and the dark days of winter
are gradually becoming brighter. Soon the summer weather will be
The situation in this book is that Frank Bascombe
is living in New Jersey. It is November-December of 2012. Hurricane
Sandy hit the coast in the last days of October, disrupting
things. This was a huge catastrophe. Front page news around the
world. But I knew nothing about it. We were in Nepal, trekking in
the mountains, enjoying other thoughts, and by the time we had
returned a couple of weeks later, Hurricane Sandy was no longer a
thing of interest. So I missed it completely. Only weeks later, when
talking with a friend from New Jersey, did I hear about Hurricane
Sandy. And then reading a few things in the internet, it seemed to
me to be nonsense that people were becoming so hysterical about a
mere storm. Typical of what the United States has become in recent
In fact I grew up in New Jersey. Our family had a
summer house on Long Beach Island. And then at the end of the 1950s
we became permanent residents, staying all year round, and that is
where I went to school. So I know all about living on the beach in
New Jersey. The Frank Bascombe of the novel had been living on the
sandy peninsula north of Long Beach Island, in a fictional place,
maybe around Seaside Park.
Most people left the island when Hurricane
Donna hit us in 1960, but for various reasons, we remained.
The eye went right over us, and we went out during the calm of the
eye to watch the wild ocean from the sand dunes. Hurricane Donna
remains the 10th worst hurricane in the U.S. in terms of damage,
although it had weakened somewhat by the time it reached Long Beach
Island. (Sandy is nowhere on this list.)
And then there was the March
Storm of 1962. That was far worse than Donna, and certainly
much worse than Sandy. Our house was at Loveladies, just north of
Harvey Cedars. By chance the family had sold it not long before, and
we had moved to the mainland at Barnegat. The people who bought the
house were out of luck. I remember that soon after the storm was
over, my father went across Barnegat Bay with some others in a boat
to look at the damage, and he said that the house had disappeared.
As I understood it, the ocean broke through the island at the point
where our house had been. Here is a film
which somebody made just a week or two after the storm, driving from
Surf City north to Barnegat Light.
I don't remember that New Jersey was gripped by
an End-of-the-World hysteria in those days. There were no military,
wearing bullet-proof vests, sub-machine guns, from the Department of
Homeland Security, patrolling the area, terrorizing people. After
all, these were just storms. That's what the weather is like
sometimes. If you build a house on sand, then, after all, you can
expect it to be washed away every so often. That's what summer
houses are all about.
But I can understand why people became so
hysterical in 2012. After reading The Help, reviewed above,
I was led to think about what things cost in the United States these
days, in contrast to the situation in 1960. Those 1960 summer houses
on Long Beach Island would not have cost more than a years wages of
the families which owned them. Our house was a bit bigger than the
average of the island, but still it was just the standard 2x4 frames
with plywood of those days. Then a few years ago I found an internet
site using zoomable Google satellite pictures, where when zooming
down on a neighborhood in the U.S.A., the estimated value of each of
the individual houses was shown. Out of curiosity I zoomed onto
Loveladies on Long Beach Island, and my astonishment was boundless!
Those beach houses were given values of 2 million dollars and more!
How absolutely ridiculous! I just had to laugh. And so the tragedy
of Hurricane Sandy is that many of these silly, old, retired people
have gotten themselves up to their necks in debt, buying a house of
sand which has been washed away, and thus they are living the
reverse, or perhaps the reality, of the American Dream.
In the first story of the book, Frank Bascombe
drives out to the beach to meet the fellow who bought his house.
Frank has moved inland to a fictional town, but which we are told is
really supposed to be Princeton. Before retirement, Frank was a real
estate agent, and so he feels guilty about all the over-priced
houses he has sold to these people. We are told that the house was
worth 3 or 4 millions before it was washed away, but now some
Korean, or Chinese people are offering to pay $300,000 for the block
of sand it used to sit on. The owner of the washed-away house has a
fish business which is worth millions anyway, but still he goes on
and on, saying horrible things, making a mess of himself. The author
intersperses the dialog with long, often humorous philosophical
observations about the meaning of the dialog. There was also lots of
slang, and slang abbreviations, which meant nothing to me. But
thankfully there are now internet slang dictionaries which explain
The other stories concern things happening around
Frank's present home. A strange woman appears and tells him that she
used to live in the house as a child. And then she tells him the
tragic story of her childhood. Then he visits his ex-wife, Ann, in
an absurd retirement home for the very rich. The final story is of
an ex-friend who is also absurdly rich, yet who is in the final
phase of cancer. Frank reluctantly visits him and is subjected to an
unpleasant collection of bad thoughts. In the end, the ex-friend
tells him that years ago he slept with Ann when Frank was still
married to her. But for Frank, it means nothing. He is just happy to
I enjoyed the book. It is often funny. Perhaps
Richard Ford was making fun of all these false emotions.
The narrator of this book is again Frank
Bascombe, but the time is now the year 2000. Hurricane Sandy is
far in the future. The problem is that the presidential election
in the USA has just taken place and the outcome is uncertain. Will
the corrupt Jeb Bush, governor of Florida, steal the election for
his blundering brother George W. on the basis of hanging "chads",
or will the equally corrupt Al Gore be given the victory?
Of course we all know how things turned out. The Supreme Court of
the USA appointed George W. Bush to the presidency in a kind of
constitutional coup d'etat, thus rendering the American Constitution
for ever afterwards "quaint" and irrelevant. And the slippery Al
Gore, whose personal wealth was only a modest few millions - par for
the course for an American politician - appointed himself the
anointed priest of global warming, thus quickly increasing his
personal wealth into the hundreds of millions.
But this isn't really the story of the book.
Frank Bascombe is living in an imaginary town named Sea-Clift, on
that sand peninsula north of Long Beach Island on the New Jersey
coast. Thanksgiving is approaching. He has been diagnosed with
prostate cancer. And so he has gone to the Mayo Clinic where they
have introduced numbers of tiny titanium balls, seeded with some
short-lived radioactive substance, into his prostate gland. This is
constantly on Frank's mind. Also his second wife, Sally, has left
him after her first husband suddenly and unexpectedly appeared.
Frank seems completely lonely, at loose ends. He orders a catering
service to provide an extravagantly expensive Thanksgiving dinner at
his luxurious beach-side house, hoping that his two grown children,
together with partners, might come.
It took me a long time to read this book. Richard
Ford does not subscribe to the idea that good writing should be
brief, taught, to the point. On the contrary, he is someone who
believes that if you can describe something with three words, then
it is better to ramble on for three pages with flowery verbiage,
saying nothing in particular, but perhaps giving some idea of the
confused, desperate thoughts of a lonely man. I became a bit
irritated with Richard Ford's habit of always trying to find three
examples of something or other in order to illustrate some trivial
At one point in the book, Frank travels up around
Asbury Park, meeting the old father of a previous girlfriend of his.
They seem to hate each other. But they enjoy watching the spectacle
of a building being demolished. I suppose this was a reference to
the starting point of George W. Bush's wars of terror, namely the
falling down of various buildings at the World Trade Center in New
York. Frank and his companion continually refer to the phenomenon of
a building falling down as being an "implosion". This word is also
used by all the people who maintain that the World Trade Center
buildings fell down as a result of explosives planted in the
buildings. As explained
here, the word is a misnomer in connection with building
demolitions. An implosion is the opposite of an explosion. For
example an old vacuum TV tube will implode if broken, since the air
rushes into the vacuum. Or in an atomic
bomb, shaped charges compress a plutonium shell, resulting in
an implosion which, of course, subsequently leads to a violent
Frank's profession is a real-estate agent. I have
already commented in the previous review about the ridiculous prices
which seem to be paid for houses on the coast of New Jersey. Each
house changes hands for upwards of a million dollars! But then we
learn that Frank cashes in with his 6% commission. Thus he is raking
in at least $60,000, and more likely well over $100,000 for each of
the houses he sells. And he seems to sell them every week or two, at
least. Thus Frank must have a yearly income of many millions. Can
this be true? If so, why isn't everybody cashing in on this absurdly
bloated real-estate bubble? Or is there some sort of mafia which
restricts the number of people suckling on this milk cow?
This is a longish story, or novella,
consisting of two parts. The Man Who Died is Christ, and
Lawrence imagines a different story for his resurrection than those
which are usually narrated by the various Christian churches.
According to Lawrence's version, the Roman soldiers made a mistake,
taking Christ down from the cross before he had actually died, then
throwing him into a cave. Thus we have Christ awakening, suffering
from his horrible tortures, dragging himself outside and seeking
shelter in order to hide from the cruel soldiers. And he finds
shelter in the hovel of a poor couple, who have hens and a cock.
But the cock (that symbol of masculinity) wishes
to escape the confines of the poor hovel, and after a few days, when
Christ is feeling somewhat better, he sets off into the world,
taking the cock with him. Christ realizes that his life up to now,
concerned with sin and all that stuff, continuously telling people
what to do, may have been too one-sided. Thus he resolves to set out
anew, embracing the world as it is. In particular he sees to it that
the cock settles himself into a more satisfying existence. And thus
ends Part 1, which Lawrence wrote during a visit to Italy.
Then later, staying in Switzerland, he added Part
2. The cock is no longer a part of the story. Instead the humbled,
wandering Christ arrives at a peninsula in the Eastern
Mediterranean, and he meets a wealthy woman who is into all these
Egyptian religious myths. She has built for herself a private
temple, devoted to the goddess Isis. In a nutshell, the story of Isis and Osiris
is that they are wife and husband (Osiris is a king of Egypt in
those prehistoric days, perhaps at the end of the last ice age when
the Sahara was a savanna). The brother of Osiris, Set, in order to
grab the throne for himself, kills King Osiris. But then Isis
gathers together the dead pieces of Osiris' body, reconstructing
things sufficiently in order to copulate with it, and thus to
procreate a son, Horus, who eventually destroys the evil Set and
assumes the throne himself. But there is no question about Osiris
living on after this strange and revolting act of Isis.
The private priestess to the cult of Isis
imagines that she herself is as Isis, and she seeks union with an
appropriate Osiris. And so the appearance of Christ in her little
sanctuary is very welcome, particularly considering the fact that
she is rapidly approaching middle age. After the divine coupling,
Christ (in contrast with Osiris) wanders off in his search for life,
and the priestess presumably bears a son who will in turn assume
responsibility for the Kingdom of Heaven.
I was amused to read these delightfully
blasphemous ideas, and I was surprised to see that the book was
openly published back in 1929. However it was only an edition of 50
copies, printed on very fine Japanese vellum, so I suppose it
escaped the attentions of the religious authorities of the time.
Of course many of the ideas of Christianity stem
from Egyptian beliefs, so the idea of equating Christ with Osiris is
not as far-fetched as it would seem. Some time ago I watched an
interesting Internet video in which the parallels between the
various religions were described. It was shown that much of it
concerns astrology. On the other hand, it has been asserted that
many of the positive teachings of Christianity stem from the
enlightened ideas of the Greek philosopher Epicurus.
I'm now just discovering these books of
D.H. Lawrence. Somehow I had thought that they were on the level
of the boring erotica of Henry Miller, or whatever. Lady
Chatterley's Lover seems to be the basis for countless trivial,
soft-core movies. But as I now see, all of this is a ridiculous
distortion of what D.H. Lawrence actually wrote.
The present book is an emotional, sensitive
description of an English family, the Brangwens, over three
generations, from about 1850 to 1900. The husband of the first
generation has inherited the family farm. He is comfortably well
off, but he feels himself to be on a lower plane than the ladies
and gentlemen of the "finer society" of Victorian England. And so
he marries a Polish lady, an immigrant to England, a widow who has
been reduced to becoming a housemaid in the town. The conflicts
and difficulties of this situation are described very honestly by
Lawrence. Eventually the marriage does become harmonious and
We then follow the stepdaughter into her
marriage with a Brangwen nephew. Again, he is interested in
woodworking, handwork, and she thinks of herself in terms of her
aristocratic Polish heritage. Yet they carry on, living together,
producing many children.
The child of the third generation which we are
interested in is Ursula, the eldest daughter. The book
concentrates very much upon Ursula, and she is also the main
character in Lawrence's next book, Women in Love. While
still 16 or 17 years old, she wonders if she is in love with the
son of one of these earlier Polish aristocrats who have fallen
upon straightened circumstances in England. But Ursula also
develops affection for a (female) teacher in her school. Could
this be the reason the book was banned in England? It seems
incredible. Perhaps it was more related to the hysterical state of
Britain during the years of the First World War.
Ursula would like to earn her own way in life,
not just marry and have children. She starts teaching at a
dreadful elementary school. The conditions described are difficult
to imagine. Ursula is a sensitive young woman who would like to
teach in an enlightened way. But she is forced to become part of
the brutality of the system. After two years of this she is
thankfully able to leave and continue on with a course of study,
which, unfortunately is thrown away by the reappearance of her
It has taken me some time to get through
this one. Somehow the dramatic speeches of the various characters
can only be taken in small doses. In a Guardian
review, the book is compared with Greek tragedy: the
Oresteia. But there, the emotions of the characters (Cassandra,
Clytemnestra, Electra, and what have you) are plausible, given the
extremely dramatic starting point of the story. The dialog is
clear and to the point. Yet here, D.H. Lawrence's characters
philosophize in a vacuum about the nature of love, seemingly
leading nowhere. At least it does lead to a trip to Innsbruck in
Austria, and a mountain valley up beyond the town, where Gerald,
the beautiful, rich young Englishman, has been driven mad, and he
expires in a fit of hallucinogenic confusion in the icy
nighttime snow. Frankly, I doubt that this story would have fared
well against the offerings of Aeschylus in those drama competitions
of ancient Greece.
But it really isn't a Greek drama. From what I
gather, the book was supposed to be some sort of statement about the
transition from traditional to modern life a hundred years ago.
Indeed, the situation at the end, where we have the two sisters,
Ursula and Gudrun, having a skiing holiday in the Alps with their
respective boyfriends, Gerald and (Rupert) Birkin, is something
which millions of people do these days. If your parents don't happen
to like your boyfriend, then that's their problem. Forget it! And of
course it is sensible to get to know one another as intimately as
possible before marriage. That such ideas were considered scandalous
in 1920 seems now to be neither here nor there.
During the few more or less intimate scenes in
the book, the word "loins" is often used (always in the plural). In
my ignorance, I had considered that to be an antiquated word which
was used in the days of censure to refer to unmentionable parts of
the human anatomy located somewhere between the chest and the legs.
But looking it up in the dictionary, I find that a loin is "that
part of a human being or quadruped on either side of the spinal
column between the hip bone and the false ribs". And in fact,
D.H. Lawrence uses the word in that sense. Nevertheless, my
dictionary says that in poetic diction, the word loin can also refer
to "the seat of generation or procreation". So there you are.
Both Ursula and Gudrun are normal sorts of
people. On the other hand, the two men are so strange as to be
practically incomprehensible to me. Gerald has inherited the family
coal-mining business. Thus, far from being a representative of
modern life, where the captains of industry are anonymous managers,
thinking only of their bonuses, Gerald is like an ancient English
squire, living in an expansive mansion overlooking the mining town,
personally ruling over the lives of the individual miners and their
families. I can hardly imagine what such a person must have thought.
What is the extent of egoism? As far as Gerald is concerned, his
"love" of Gudrun was expressed also as hatred - the wish to kill
her. And then his friend Birkin lectures us for page after page
about his philosophy of "love". Apparently, for him, love is not an
end in itself, rather it is something inexpressibly transcendental.
At least this does not lead him to attempt to murder Ursula. It only
confuses her, and the reader as well. She does finally accept his
offer of marriage, and it seems that in the end, after Gerald goes
mad (after his failed attempt to strangulate Gudrun) and Gudrun
takes off to Dresden with her newly-found Bohemian acquaintance,
Ursula and Birkin live happily ever after as a modern married
As far as I know, D.H. Lawrence did not write a
further continuation of the story, so we can leave Ursula in the
same way we leave Jane Austen's heroines at the end of their books.
And as far as I am concerned, that is enough D.H. Lawrence for now.
A (thankfully) short book about an
unpleasant subject. We imagine Mary, the mother of Jesus, as she
really would be; a mother experiencing the dreadful fate of her
son. Following the story in the New Testament of the Bible,
we see a proud, arrogant Jesus dismissing, if not despising his
mother. She sees him surrounded by strange, wild disciples, and she
would like to speak with him sensibly. Is there no way to save him
from this path to destruction? She learns that he has become
condemned to be crucified, and this shocks her. She travels to
Jerusalem and watches the horror, and then flees, knowing that her
life is also in danger. In the end, she is taken to some place of
refuge by some of the apostles who aggressively badger her for ever
more details to include in their gospels. She fears that they might
wish her dead in order to be able to invent stories which depart
from the truth. For comfort, and out of fear, she avoids the
synagogs of her Jewish religion and instead she visits the local
Temple of Artemis.
If we assume that Jesus was actually a real
person who was crucified for becoming a troublemaker, then this
account of his mother does ring true. The Roman practice of
crucifying people was unspeakably horrible. I found this account
of crucifixion in the Wikipedia, and reading the disgusting details
late last night kept me from sleep. Christianity uses the
crucifixion as the main symbol, or icon, of its religion. But the
crucifixes found in churches, or in the classrooms of Bavaria or
Italy, depict a suffering figure displayed in a dignified posture.
He supports himself with his feet on a small platform, the legs to
the side, hiding the private parts, or perhaps he is wearing a
loin-cloth. This distorts the reality beyond all recognition. The
Romans nailed the feet through the heels to opposite sides of the
cross, exposing the naked body to the most horrible indecencies
imaginable. The purpose was to display the victim in the most
disgusting, degrading way, prolonging the torture even for days on
end. For me, thinking about this is literally a nightmare.
What are we to make of a religion which depicts
itself in a torture scene? Is this the reason that historically,
those countries which adopted that religion have been the most
aggressive? The followers of the Christian religion wiped out most
of the populations of the Americas and Australia. We can contrast
this with other religions. For example Buddhism has as its icon a
stout, smiling man, sitting cross-legged on the ground,
contemplating the world. I am not aware that Buddhists are, as a
general rule, prone to such violence.
Some time ago I came across a video
which described the happy fact that violence within humanity has
been decreasing over time. The brutality of Roman civilization, with
its gladiatorial exhibitions and crucifixions, is difficult for us
to imagine. And Elizabethan England was also unimaginably brutal.
What is the reason that modern civilization is gradually freeing
itself from the horrors of the past? Could it be the fact that most
people are no longer prepared to take seriously the rigid dogmas and
superstitious of religion? Instead it is now considered normal to
feel empathy for people who are different from ourselves, who think
differently and believe in different things.
Having bought numbers of books through
Amazon, I decided to see what they would recommend on the basis of
what I had already ordered from them. This one was given five
stars by each of the four people who had reviewed it, and so I
thought it might be interesting.
It is concerned with an old (80, or perhaps 82
years old) woman, Maud, who is having extreme difficulties with
her memory. She cannot keep track of things. Her short-term
memory is almost completely gone. But her memory of things in the
remote past is still intact. She tries to cope with life by writing
notes to herself on little snippets of paper, hoping by that means
to revive the memories of a few minutes ago. She believes her
friend, another geriatric woman named Elizabeth, is missing, and she
writes lots of notes to herself to remind herself of this fact. She
often goes off, looking for Elizabeth, getting lost, causing lots of
trouble for everybody. She goes to the local police station to tell
them that Elizabeth is missing, but she forgets that she has been
there before. She goes to the local newspaper to put a missing
persons advertisement in the paper. She suspects that Elizabeth's
son Peter has done something dreadful. Has he murdered Elizabeth? Or
has he otherwise done away with her? And through all of this, we are
told about about another story. Here the memories are more coherent.
Maud's sister, Sukey, disappeared when Maud herself was a young
girl, only 15 or so, back in 1946, in England at the end of the
Second World War. What happened to Sukey?
We read on through the book. In the end we find
that Elizabeth is not missing, but poor Sukey did not have such a
The book was not very long, and I read it in just
a day or two. But still, it became tedious. Reading for the
umpteenth time about how Maud can't remember what happened a minute
or two ago got on the nerves. Somehow, when reading a book, I
imagine myself in the situation of the narrator, and it was
extremely irritating to be reminded again and again about not
remembering what's happening. Is this what dementia is like? Is it a
kind of psychedelic trip? It must be a horrible strain on whoever is
looking after you. In the case of Maud, it was her daughter Helen
who was a model of level-headed, calm, sensibility. We think of
these old, demented people as suffering from something unpleasant.
Their carers feel it is necessary to devote themselves to
alleviating the suffering. But what if the reality is different?
Perhaps dementia might sometimes be an interesting state of altered
The story starts off in a Business Class
lounge in London's Heathrow Airport. The beautiful, young Lily
Kintner meets the millionaire - or perhaps even billionaire -
dot.com entrepreneur, Ted Severson. Both are American, and
both are waiting to fly to Boston. A pleasant scene.
Unfortunately, I am neither a billionaire nor a
millionaire, and thus flying in the normal economy class is so
unpleasant that we hardly go anywhere these days. Crossing the
Atlantic may not be so bad. It may be possible to endure eight hours
in those conditions. But the flight to Australia, or even just to
interesting destinations in Asia, takes 15, 20 hours, or even more.
Some people can sleep while sitting more or less upright with the
knees jammed against the seat in front. I certainly can't. A friend
has been planing a holiday with his wife in Australia, flying
business class, and he has been telling me that it isn't quite as
expensive as I had thought. Therefore this scene at the beginning of
the book got me thinking about how pleasant it would be to travel in
a civilized, graceful way, more appropriate for older people in
retirement. We'll see.
But to return to the book. It turns out that
being so rich has its disadvantages as well. Ted's wife Miranda has
gotten him to spend many of his millions having a preposterously
gigantic house built overlooking the sea on the coast of Maine. He
has observed her having sex with the building contractor, the
muscular, somewhat alcoholic Brad. Ted explains all this to Lily,
and she suggests that he simply murder his wife. She is being
serious. Why not rid the earth of someone who will continue to cause
trouble as long as she lives?
And so the story develops. We learn more about
Lily. She is not merely the pleasantly attractive companion in
business class we had at first thought she was. Will they succeed in
killing Miranda? And what about Brad? The book is full of unexpected
twists. Even the Boston detective on the case met with some nasty
surprises. I enjoyed this one, and I read it practically in one
sitting. Or rather two, separated by a somewhat shortened night
which, however, was spent in infinitely more comfort than a night
spent flying in economy class.
Wildlife, by Richard Ford
A month or two ago I read a couple of
Ford's books, where the central character is named Frank Bascombe.
Particularly "The Lay of the Land" seemed to ramble on, not
getting to the point, whatever it was. This one was totally
different, and I am astonished that both this and those Frank
Bascombe books were really written by one and the same person.
Here we have short, simple sentences. The story describes a crisis
in a family, as seen by the teenaged son who loves and admires both
of his parents.
It reminded me of a Hemingway short story, and
so, looking around the room here, I started reading "The Short Happy
Life of Francis Macomber". After two or three pages I stopped,
realizing that the violent, morally degenerate world of Hemingway
was not something to compare the present book with. Perhaps it is somewhat
comparable to the stories in the sequence In Our Time, where
Nick Adams and his father are out there somewhere in the West, near
an Indian camp, or something.
Well, here, in Wildlife, the narrator is Joe
Brinson. The family is living in Great Falls, Montana. Joe does not
have nice, manly adventures with his father, as Nick does in In
Our Time. Instead, Joe's father goes off by himself to fight a
forest fire somewhere west of town, in the Rocky Mountains. His
mother wants a better life with somebody else. The rich, old,
painfully old-fashioned, Warren Miller. Joe sees all of the awkward,
unpleasant details of this short business. The flabby flounderings
in the night. After just a day or two, Joe's father returns. He
makes a half-hearted attempt to burn down Miller's house, but the
fire fizzles out and the rich Warren Miller generously desists from
pressing charges. Apart from this, neither Joe, nor either of his
parents seem particularly angry. They speak in civilized sentences,
continually telling each other that everything is "fine". I didn't
count how many times the word "fine" comes up in the dialogue. But
perhaps the mother didn't say that everything is fine.
In the end Joe tells us that his parents are
together, and so I suppose it's fine, and Joe has grown up and
gotten on with other things. Maybe he has learned how to live
through an awkward marital crisis.
This is the first science fiction book
I've read in many years. As far as I can see, the genre has
generally become polluted by all those silly books about
jumping through worm-holes, and what have you. But this one is quite
realistic. NASA, that institution which organized the triumphant
conquest of the Moon almost 50 years ago, has gradually lost its
way, wasting money on overly complicated rockets which don't work
properly, and thus it now relies on either Russian rockets, or ones
which are privately financed, built on a shoe-string, and which are
thus also unreliable. And then of course it has involved itself in
absurd, politically motivated speculations concerning the weather on
Some people within NASA have thought that it
would be nice to return to the original mission, namely to pursue
the exploration of outer space by real, living, people.
Unfortunately the Moon has already been explored. The only other
object out there which people could reasonably explore is Mars.
After all, Venus is much too hot. Jupiter is too big, and anyway
there is no real surface to land on. You would just drop down into a
bottomless mess and never get out. Ditto Saturn, Uranus, and
Neptune. And anyway, those planets are really, really far away. I
suppose it would take a whole human lifetime just to reach them and
return. So you would have to launch a spaceship filled with babies,
hoping that they will grow up to be astronauts by the time they get
there. Perhaps it would be physically possible to try one or two of
the moons of Jupiter, or even Titan, the moon of Saturn. They are
pretty cold, but, as in this book, the astronauts might bring along
a big lump of plutonium to gather around and keep themselves warm.
Thus we see that, apart from the odd asteroid,
Mars is really the only thing out there in outer space which is left
to be explored. So how difficult would it be to send a man to Mars
and return him safely to the Earth? Andy Weir goes into this
question carefully, explaining in detail how an expedition of 6
people could be sent to Mars, stay there for 30 days, and then
return to the Earth. First of all, the landing site would be
selected, and then 10 or 15 unmanned rockets would be sent, remotely
controlled, to the site, establishing a store of food, lots of
further technical supplies, shelters, and so forth. Also an unmanned
rocket would be sent, carrying the extra, separate escape rocket
which the astronauts would need in order to blast off from Mars.
That rocket would itself be 25 or 30 meters tall. Heaven knows how
big the rocket from Earth would have to be which carries the escape
rocket to Mars and soft lands it on the site for the expedition. And
then, in order for the astronauts to get from the Earth to Mars in
reasonable time (about a year when the two planets are lined up
nicely) a huge spaceship would have to be assembled in Earth-orbit,
powered not by chemical rockets, but rather by electrically
accelerating charged ions out the back.
How much would all of this cost? As far as I
understand it, the cost of shipping a tiny Mars "rover" over there,
which can in no way be compared with all of the shipments we are
talking about here, already runs into the hundreds of millions, if
not billions of dollars. Thus it seems to me that the whole
expedition would cost trillions of dollars. A large fraction of the
resources of the Earth would be necessary. And then, according to
the story of the book, a whole series of these Mars excursions were
Is it reasonable to suppose that the United
States, in its present moral state, or perhaps the whole world, in
some united fit of euphoria, would become convinced that such a
gigantic effort might be worthwhile? And what would be the result of
such an expedition? A couple of people would be seen jumping about
in the lifeless dust for a couple of weeks. And then I suppose the
human angle would be interesting. A kind of reality show on
television, lasting for 2 or 3 years, observing the conflicts and
tensions which might develop amongst the astronauts over such a long
The story of this book illustrates the absurdity
of the whole thing to an almost ridiculous degree. The expedition
becomes caught in a Mars sandstorm and must chaotically abort the
mission, quickly blasting off in the escape rocket. But
unfortunately one man is left, apparently for dead, on Mars. But he
is not dead. And so the Earth must organize a rescue. And the man
must deal with the problems of surviving for hundreds of days and
getting himself over to the stash of supplies which has been set up
for the next expedition, over a thousand kilometers away, thus
rendering that expedition useless as well. What nonsense!
But still, as I say, all of this could,
technically, happen in a world which is not ours, and I enjoyed
reading about the one crisis after another which our Martian
encountered, and the long, technical explanations which Andy Weir
has thought up to allow the astronaut to continue on and on, keeping
alive in this absurdly hostile environment until rescue
In our real world, the melodrama of Greece
continues unabated, as does that of the Ukraine, euphoric Islamists,
and all that other stuff.
This is the second of Ford's Frank
Bascombe novels, and now the third one I've read. For me it
was better than The Lay of the Land, but not as good as Let
Me Be Frank With You. Here, Frank is 44 years old. It is 1988
and that stupid old Ronald Reagen is leaving the White House, to be
replaced either by the evil George Bush, or else the Democrat,
Michael Dukakis. Frank is for the Democrats, and so he is
continually philosophizing about possible relationships between the
coming election and real life.
If Frank's life is an example of what it is to be
a Democrat then I would be a Republican, although of course this is
a mute point since I am not an American citizen. The book follows
Frank about during the holiday weekend of the Fourth of July. Seven
years ago he became divorced from his wife Ann. Now he is working on
Sally (who we meet more fully in The Lay of the Land). He is
a real estate agent in Haddam, New Jersey, which is a fictional
version of Princeton. Back in 1988 there was no bubble in the real
estate market and so prices were understandable. In fact at one
point in the book, Frank tells us that as a sensible rule of thumb,
a house should cost about two and a half times your yearly gross
income. Thus Frank's commission of 6% on the houses he sells gives
him a very comfortable, yet reasonable income. Despite this, all of
Frank's friends, and particularly Ann's new husband, are filthy
The first half of the book explains all of this
in tedious detail. I found it to be heavy going. In the middle of
the book I decided to get a new Kindle e-reader, the top model
"voyager". It has many improvements on the old, original Kindle
which I have been using up to now. The dictionary function works
much better, and if the dictionary draws a blank then it tries to
look up the word in the Wikipedia. This was useful here, since
Richard Ford uses lots of words which were unfamiliar to me. Often
the Kindle dictionary (for this book, I chose the New Oxford
American Dictionary) was clueless. Sometimes the Wikipedia did give
a clue. Modern slang expressions, often based on words derived from
foreign languages. Perhaps a reflection of the ethnic diversity of
But gradually the story picked up. Frank first
drives over to Sally's expensive house on the beach in New Jersey,
then drives up to Connecticut to pick up his son Paul who lives with
Ann and her new husband. He gets bogged down along the way in the
endless traffic jams of the holiday weekend. The idea is to take the
15 year old Paul to see the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Paul is a difficult child. A real mess. But then
Frank is also a mess. And their dialogue is too. Primitive language
from the gutter. In fact everybody in this book (as far as they are
not speaking in obscure, modern Americanisms) is continually
swearing at everybody else. But on the other hand, Frank is always
trying to tell us what a reasonable, sensible person he is. It is no
wonder that the poor Paul has turned out so badly, given his
Leaving the bad language aside, I kept asking
myself why I found Frank to be such an offensive person, despite the
fact that he is always trying to do the "good thing" in life.
Perhaps it was his basic dishonesty. Cheating on Ann. At one point
he telephones Sally in the middle of the night, professing his love,
but at the end, after replacing the phone on the receiver, he shouts
obscenities into the dead phone. And then at the baseball place,
showing off, aggressively carrying on with Paul, he faces a pitching
machine, pitching fast balls, goofing around without the proper
protection. This leads to the tragedy with Paul.
Is this the problem with Democrats? Dishonesty?
Irresponsibility? From what I can see from here, modern day
Republicans are just as bad.
Looking at the Wikipedia entry for the author, Richard Ford,
I see that there are some parallels with the life of Frank Bascombe.
I can only hope that in real life, Richard Ford is not like this.
In many situations in life one is dependent on
other people. Perhaps the prime example of this is being a child,
dependent on one's parents. Or for example if you are in an
airplane, being dependent on the actions of the pilot. How dreadful
it would be to be dependent on a person of the character of Frank
The Firm, by
The author writes lots of
best-sellers. Yet despite this, previous to this book I hadn't read
anything by John Grisham. From what I gather from his Wikipedia page,
he was himself a successful lawyer and politician before starting on
his writing career. Apparently something on the order of 300 million
of his books have been sold, and thus he is a rich man. This
was his second novel, and I see that he churns them out at the rate
of one per year.
The story is that we have a successful law
student at Harvard, Mitch, who is about to graduate at the top of
his class. Of course this cannot be compared with mathematics.
Success in law seems to involve incredible feats of memorization;
rote, mindless "learning", involving endless hours of dedication
with the hope of becoming rich.
Mitch receives various offers of employment by
law firms in New York and Chicago. Yet he accepts an offer from a
firm in Memphis, Tennessee, which offers more money. I was somewhat
confused here since it was said that the New York firms offered
about $75,000 (of 1991 dollars), while the Memphis firm offered
$85,000, plus lots of extras. But then we learn that lawyers get
paid by "billing" clients. Mitch gets $100/hour. He hopes to become
a partner of the firm, and he learns that those exulted individuals
bill at the rate of $500/hour! We are then told that during his
first year he sits in his office, billing away at the rate of 80
hours/week. Multiplying things together we see then that he will get
something on the order of $416,000 in his first year from his
billings alone. Not a measly $85,000.
But things do not go swimmingly. He learns that
the firm is a front for laundering money in the Cayman Islands, the
evil profits of a Mafia "family" in Chicago. The beginning lawyers
at the firm don't know this. Instead they do "legitimate" business
as a front for the more serious illegal business of the senior
partners. Only later are they initiated into this secret, after they
are in too far to get out. As we all know, the penalty the Mafia
sets on disloyalty is death - or worse. Despite this, Mitch gathers
the evidence, gets in touch with the FBI, electronically transfers
millions of the illicit funds from the Cayman Islands to his own
accounts, decides he mistrusts the FBI as well and flees with his
wife and brother to a yacht, cruising around the Caribbean where
they all live happily ever after, eluding both the Mafia and the FBI
who have hundreds of evil people on their trail, trying to kill
I would have enjoyed the book more if I could
have made myself believe that the story was realistic. Obviously I
have no idea at all about such things. But still, it seems to me
that the Mafia would not go about things in this way. If they were
to set about entrapping gullible law students into their firm, then
surely they would prefer the dumber ones, rather than the top
students. After all, as the book shows, somebody like Mitch would be
a danger for them. And according to the standard Hollywood picture,
the lawyers are, say, sons, or perhaps son-in-laws of the
"Godfather" at the head of the Mafia "family". I imagine that the
Mafia makes it clear from the beginning what prospective members are
getting into. Then they take their solemn oaths, swearing before God
to remain loyal to their Mafia "family".
On the other hand I can well imagine that The
Firm of this novel would be a good description of the big Wall
Street banks, such as Goldman-Sachs. Lawyers working for
Goldman-Sachs have certainly been recruited from amongst the top
students of the most elite law schools. They work endless hours,
receiving huge amounts of money. Only if they advance to the highest
echelons of The Firm do they become initiated into the secrets of
the business. The corruption exceeds in all measure everything which
the little Mafia Firm of this novel has to do. The people at the top
of Goldman-Sachs are not afraid of the FBI. They own the
FBI! And they own the Congress of the United States. Thus, if Mitch
was a lawyer in such a real Mafia-like firm he would have no
problems (apart from his conscience), and the story would be boring,
not ending with an exciting chase sequence. If he were to reveal the
secrets, as many people have, then they would not be taken up by the
press, television, and what have you (which are all owned by these
financial interests). Instead he might find himself being arrested
by the FBI on some trumped up charges and so silenced, or else
thrown into prison, particularly so if he were to copy sensitive
documents, as in this book. Otherwise he would be ignored as a kooky
conspiracy theorist, and that would be the end of that.
Have the Cayman Islands become such a den of
corruption? I hope not.
Back in 1965 I visited my uncle in Grand Cayman,
just after he had taken up the position of Stipendiary Magistrate
for the Cayman Islands. Before this he had been the Chief Justice of
Fiji and then Chief Justice of Zanzibar, the later posting ending
when an armed revolutionary escorted him from his office in 1964, to
be led to the beach and a British gunboat. Thus in 1965 there were
few colonies left to be administered by the British Colonial
Service, and rather than early retirement, he preferred taking up
this more minor position on the sleepy island of Grand Cayman.
I flew down from Miami on an ancient Vickers
Viscount of British West Indies Airways, passing through a turbulent
thunderstorm over Cuba. For me, Grand Cayman was as a vision of
paradise. I often ran the length of the deserted beach, delighting
in the soft sand which consisted of tiny grains of colorful coral.
One of the few buildings on the beach was Government House, and I
was introduced to The Administrator and his wife (in those days, the
head of government of such a small colony was not given the title of
Governor). They were extremely welcoming, and they encouraged me to
use the sailfish
sailboat of Government House. I was told that Prince Charles
had sailed on it as well. The water was pleasantly warm and crystal
clear. Looking at boats floating in the water at Georgetown, it was
as if they were floating on air.
But having read this book, I thought it would be
interesting to have a look at Grand Cayman via Google Earth. What a
change! It seems that the whole length of seven mile beach is now
filled with hotels and holiday apartments. It was difficult to find
Government House, which now seems to be a diminutive building,
sandwiched between immense hotels. The lagoon in the middle, which
in 1965 was a lonely tropical backwater where I had a day of fishing
with a Hemingway sort of fellow, together with a native guide on a
small, open boat, has now become like the bay behind Miami Beach.
The peninsula separating the lagoon from the beach has now been
"developed" into a maze of expensive building sites. I suppose there
is no longer any room for the land crabs and tree frogs which were
everywhere back then.
As I understand it, England was anxious to rid
itself of its unnecessary colonies in those days, and so it was
thought that the simplest thing would be to have the Caymans
becoming part of Jamaica, which had already gained its independence.
And yet the people of the Caymans did not want to become part of the
chaos and corruption of Jamaica. They preferred to remain a British
colony. This was the reason that the tax laws were formulated,
making the Cayman Islands a tax paradise. The thinking was that the
British would thus have a reason for continuing to hold on to the
Cayman Islands as a colony.
And so the world changes...
Years ago I saw the French movie
version of this story on television, with Alain Delon. An enjoyable
film. Then more recently they showed the Hollywood version with Matt
Damon. After ten minutes I turned it off since the atmosphere seemed
false and Matt Damon was making nonsense of the role. But now that I
have read the book, I see that the French movie, as good as it was,
had only a vague resemblance to Patricia Highsmith's story.
For anyone unfamiliar with the plot, it is
described in the relevant Wikipedia
article. Tom Ripley gets away scot-free. Is the Ripley
character an example of what a psychopath is? He kills on the spur
of the moment, seeing the action as being a very rational response
to the given situation. He doesn't want to kill. It just happens.
And afterwards he finds the whole business to be unpleasant, even
repulsive. Yet in his mind he constructs a logical framework to fit
the situation; convincing explanations which are, indeed, lies, but
which could be true. He would like to become his victim,
Dickie Greenleaf, and so he travels about in the Italy of the 1950s
as Dickie, the rich, carefree American, changing his own personality
to fit this image. Then, as things seem to be unraveling, he
switches back to his original personality as Tom Ripley. Is this
typical of the psychopath? Playing roles, manipulating people,
lacking any feeling of remorse.
When reading a book, or watching a film, we
establish a feeling of empathy for the main character. Will things
turn out all right? Somehow I felt horrified by what Tom was doing.
A feeling of vicarious guilt. But clearly Tom Ripley was beyond
After The Talented Mr. Ripley,
Patricia Highsmith wrote a number of further Ripley novels. This was
the second one, the direct sequel. As we found in the first book,
Tom Ripley emerges scott-free from that whole business with Dickey
Greenleaf, even inheriting all his money. And so now, in the new
novel, it is a few years later, some time in the swinging 1960s. We
have progressed out of the Italy of the 1950s. Tom lives in a
comfortable mansion outside of Paris. He has actually become
married. To Héloïse Plisso, whose parents are rich and who give her
a comfortable allowance to match Tom's ill-gotten means.
At the time we enter the story, Héloïse is away
in Greece, having a swinging time with lots of other people of the
jet-set of those days. Tom is getting into contact with some people
in London. The idea is that there was a trendy painter, Derwatt, who
disappeared into Greece some years ago, committing suicide there,
but whose paintings have become extremely expensive. The fact that
Derwatt was dead was not widely known, and so Tom had the idea of
getting somebody to paint further pictures in the style of Derwatt,
"forging" them, and having them sold for exorbitant sums in a London
picture gallery. But now an American collector, Mr. Thomas
Murchison, who has bought a Derwatt, when studying it minutely has
come to the conclusion that it must be a forgery. Thus Tom travels
to London to deal with the situation.
He invites Murchison to his French villa to
examine a couple of Derwatts which he also has hanging about the
house. It emerges that Murchison sees through Tom, realizing the
truth, and so, in typical Tom Ripley style, on the spur of the
moment, down in the wine cellar of his villa, Tom grabs a bottle of
expensive French wine and smashes it onto Murchison's head, killing
And thus the story goes on. Hiding the body,
making up stories to tell the police, Héloïse, and all the other
people. Eventually the forger, Bernard Tufts, also dies, more or
less provoked by Tom. It is not made quite clear that Tom again
emerges from this adventure scott-free, but since Patricia Highsmith
wrote a number of further Ripley stories, we assume it is true.
Given that Tom is a psychopath, I suppose it is
reasonable to assume that he would involve himself in an adventure
such as this. But surely any normal person living the good life in
an opulent villa outside Paris with plenty of money to spend would
not stir up trouble with such a scam in the world of art. So for me,
the story didn't make so much sense, and I didn't enjoy it as much
as the first book, The Talented Mr. Ripley.
I Am Livia, by Phyllis T. Smith
Having finished this one, I
clicked into Google to find a review of the book to provide an
appropriate link here. But I see that none of the usual newspapers
(Guardian, New York Times, and so forth) have bothered to give it a
review. I suppose this is understandable. The book is an historical
novel, describing the life of Livia Drusilla, who
Octavius, who later became Augustus, the first Emperor of
Rome, and thus Livia became Augusta. The book is as if it were
written by Livia herself. We might contrast this with such recent
historical novels as Wolf Hall, or How to be Both,
both of which were praised to high heaven by all newspaper reviewers
and nominated for the greatest literary prizes. They were written in
a breathless, hysterical style. Sentence fragments, half glimpsed
scenes, confusion. If Phyllis T. Smith had sought the accolades of
these newspaper writers, or of the various professors of literature,
then she would have done well to emulate such modern writing.
Thankfully she didn't. And therefore I can imagine that this book is
just what the real-life Livia might have written.
The title reminds us of the book I Claudius,
by Robert Graves. Well, I enjoyed that one even more than this. The
story was more dramatic owing to the dreadful situation faced by
Claudius during the reign of Caligula. Both
Claudius and Caligula, and also Tiberius, the second Roman Emperor,
were direct descendents of Livia.
Years ago I read all the way through Gibbon
(although, of course he dealt with a later period of Roman history),
and also Suetonius' The Twelve
Caesars. But reading an historical novel such as this
gives us a more human, and so more understandable picture of those
Perhaps the picture is wrong. Phyllis Smith
imagines that Livia and Octavius were totally in love with one
another. In one episode, she writes that after the battle of
Philippi, where Livia's father, Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus,
fought on the losing side of the republicans, he committed suicide
by falling on his sword (a horrible idea; as I understand it,
Japanese generals who commit suicide after losing a battle are
seconded by someone who immediately chops off their heads, thus
quickly putting an end to the business). In the book, it is said
that of all those falling on their swords, only Livia's father was
given a proper military funeral by Octavius as a sign of his love
for her. But I could find no confirmation of this in the Internet.
Some historians have taken a different view,
imagining that Octavius took Livia in order to increase his own
prestige. After all, Livia was a member of the ancient patrician gens
Claudia, whereas Octavius, at least on his father's side, was
Be that as it may, ancient Rome remains a
disgusting mess with its crucifixions and its gladiatorial "games".
On the other hand I suppose the modern world might be descending to
this level with the videos one can find on YouTube, displaying the
cowardly, robotic assassinations of helpless people by drones in far
Some time ago I read The
Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge, also by Patricia
Duncker, which was fun to read, and so I thought this might be good
as well. The story concerns the 18 year old Toby and his mother
Isobel, who is only 34. And then a mysterious figure keeps appearing
whose name is Roehm. He is large, elegant, rich, cold. He is the
director of a biological laboratory devoted to breeding plants and
animals for either hotter or colder climates than apply now on the
earth. Thus he covers the two possible results of "climate-change",
temperature-wise. Some readers may see in him a possible Savior of
the Earth. More sensible readers, who realize that the earth doesn't
need humanity to save itself, know that plants and animals have the
propensity to adopt themselves to earth's changing climate.
But this isn't really a book about
climate-change. Toby is very attached to his young mother, and he is
concerned about this older man, Roehm. Is he the lover of his
mother? Or is he indeed Toby's father? And why is his mother
alternately attracted and repelled by Roehm? We follow the story,
leading us from London to the French Alps and Switzerland and
Germany. Roehm seems to mysteriously appear, and then to disappear.
In the end it turns out that this is a kind of ghost story. Roehm is
actually Gustave Roehm who, we learn, accompanied Jacques Balmat and
Dr. Michel Paccard in the year 1786 on their first ascent of Mr.
Blanc, where Roehm died during the descent. Of course if we look
these things up, we find that according to main-stream history,
Balmat and Paccard were alone. There was no Gustave Roehm. He is a
fiction, a ghost.
We should suspend belief.
Well, Ok. I'm not necessarily against ghost
stories. For example there was the film "The Sixth Sense", with
Bruce Willis. He also caused a cold draft of air to announce his
presence. But the puzzling, mysterious things which went on in the
film were all resolved at the end when we realized that Bruce Willis
was playing a ghost. Then, thinking back through the story, it all
In contrast, at the end of this story, after we
realize that Roehm is a ghost, nothing is resolved. Can a ghost
physically couple with a 16 year old girl to produce a child? Can it
interact with normal people, buying extravagant meals in expensive
restaurants, chain-smoking, running a crazy laboratory? Those are
not the usual attributes of ghosts. In The Sixth Sense, Bruce Willis
could only interact with the young boy who had the "sixth sense".
This one is about Danny Miller,
who is 23, but who, when he was only 10 years old, murdered an
old woman and then apparently "played" with the body for hours
before it was discovered. A horrible thought. We are reminded of the
murder of the 2 year old James Bulger by two ten year old boys, Robert
Thompson and Jon Venables. We imagine that people, even young
boys, who commit such crimes must face the consequences. Certainly,
if a grown man were to commit such a crime then he would be thrown
into prison for a very long time. There he would be subjected to the
attacks of other prisoners, and perhaps the warders, all of whom
would be disgusted by the depravity of the crime. But at least in
the case of Thompson and Venables, their experiences were totally
different from this, as we learn, for example, here.
If anything, only the poor mother of James Bulger has been forced to
face the consequences.
In this book by Pat Barker, the young murderer,
Danny, was made to stand trial as an adult, and then he was given a
life sentence. Still, he was then assigned to a special school where
he soon had many privileges, as was the case with Thompson. And then
he was released after 10 years or so, given a new identity.
Nevertheless he resented the fact that the psychologist, Tom
Seymour, who had examined him before his trial, had told the court
that he was sufficiently mature to understand his guilt as a grownup
would have done.
The story begins with Danny seemingly trying to
drown himself and - apparently by chance - being saved by Tom. And
then Tom tries to understand Danny, to "help" him. Is Danny really a
victim, as he believes himself to be? Or is he still a dangerous
psychopath? He is certainly a very manipulative character. A
nightmare for a person like Tom, whose profession it is to deal with
Sarah is a woman in England,
approaching 30, and thus thinking that it is time to get married.
She thinks she loves her prospective husband, but the prospective
mother-in-law is making a ridiculous fuss about the wedding;
hundreds of guests, orchestras, flocks of bridesmaids, best men, and
what have you. Is this future life as the wife of a powerful lawyer
really what she wants?
By chance, returning from a calming visit to her
mother in Ireland, she stops in Wales and sees an advertisement for
a derelict cottage in the deepest, darkest back woods. But she
recognizes the name of the cottage as being the place where her
mother was born. And so, on an impulse, and without telling her
prospective husband, she buys it.
She wants to find out about her family history.
For some reason, the family seems to have maintained a silence about
this. Delving into things, she finds the death certificate of her
grandfather, who died in his 40s, in 1948. It was murder. And so she
tries to find out what the circumstances were. She imagines her
grandfather to be a hero. Perhaps he had fought in the good war. How
could anybody want to kill such a wonderful man? The killer must
have been a monster. She finds out that there was a prisoner of war
camp in the neighborhood in those days. According to the police
files, the killer was one of the German prisoners who had been
assigned to work on the neighboring farm. How horrible it must have
been to have a Nazi monster lurking about the place! Thank God all
those Germans have been put in their place. Deep down, they are all
cold blooded killers. Her blood boils at the thought that her
grandfather was killed in the prime of his life by one of those
The story develops with alternating chapters,
describing Sarah's searches for her lost grandfather, and then
alternately describing what life was really like for her
grandmother, Gwen, and the grandfather, John Owen, on the miserable
little farm. Only very slowly does Sarah approach the truth. Her
typical, preconceived English prejudices do not apply. John Owen was
the monster. A wife beater, raper of his daughter, a monster. Who
was Sarah's real grandmother? Who really killed the "grandfather"?
Who killed the poor German prisoner, Peter Faber?
Sarah has put all her money into having the
cottage renovated, made into a holiday cottage in Wales to perhaps
be rented out when she is not staying there. But when she finally
learns the full truth of the matter, just as the house is finished,
it is so horrible that she can hardly bring herself to stay in it.
Perhaps she can sell it to some unsuspecting people, some time in
At least something positive has emerged from all
this. She now realizes the gentler truth that she doesn't really
love her boyfriend enough to marry him.
This is not a novel. Rather it is
an account of the author's experience of prostrating around Mt.
Kailash in Tibet. The idea of prostrating is illustrated, for
example, in this
video, where three Tibetan women are prostrating along a road.
It certainly seems to be a strenuous and unnatural method of
progressing from A to B, more so than, say, walking backwards -
although undoubtedly less strenuous than walking on your hands, as here. But
in Tibet, prostrating is not thought of as being a sporting
exercise. Instead it is a meditation. A way of approaching the inner
self, the deeper truths of life, existence.
Mt. Kailash is one of the three holy mountains of
Tibet. It is not to be climbed upon. Instead it is considered to be
an act of pilgrimage to walk around it, which is called the Mt.
Kailash Kora. The length of the route is 53 kilometers and the
highest point is the Dirmla-la Pass, at 5,630 meters. Even walking
the kora is strenuous enough. Tibetan pilgrims are apparently called
upon to complete 13 circuits in order to achieve some level of
spiritual advancement. But prostrating the whole circuit is thought
to be even more special. It is called doing the kora with prayer. On
the other hand, Kailash is also a popular destination for trekkers,
and so lots of Europeans and Americans hike around the circuit,
admiring the landscape and the strange aspect of Mt. Kailash itself.
As the title suggests, this book is a very
personal and emotional account of the experiences of the author. She
tells us much about her life and her search for love in a mystical,
religious sense. She often tells us about the teachings of Marcus,
with whom she takes lessons in his class back in New Jersey. At the
end of the book she provides a link to Marcus' website.
But then, as she progresses around Mt. Kailash, many people tell her
that she herself is a holy one. She is a reincarnation of Tara,
the Buddhist deity. And her guides almost began to worship her. Such
ideas cause her much confusion and doubt. Why do they go on like
this? What is the true meaning of her kora? People tell her that she
is the first western person to have prostrated all the way around
Mt. Kailash. But after all, she had a more comfortable time than the
Tibetan monks who do the circuit. She was accompanied by her guides
who moved camp progressively along the path, setting up the tents,
cooking for her, bringing lunch to the point she has arrived at each
With all of the self-examination and openness
with which she confronts the reader, I decided to look up her own website to see
what was there. One thing that struck me was that she always
attaches her academic title, Ph.D., to her name. Even the title of
the website is "traceyalyssonphd.com". And the author of the book is
"Tracey Alysson, Ph.D".
Well, OK. I admit that when I first got my Ph.D.,
I also thought it was a good thing to have. And so, getting a
passport to Germany to engage in post-Ph.D. endeavors, I had them
put the title "Dr." before my name. Such hubris was brought to an
abrupt end when I learned that the Ph.D. is not the highest academic
title in Germany. Many people have Ph.D.s (or "Promotions" as they
are called here). Above that is the Habilitation degree, which is
essentially the qualification to teach at university level. At one
stage, on a further impulse of hubris when renewing my passport, I
asked to have the title "Prof." attached (leaving out the "Ph.D."
and "Habil." parts). But during more recent renewals I've felt much
more comfortable just dropping all of this. As far as the border
guards in Nepal, or whatever, are concerned, I'm just a nobody like
There may be a more practical reason for Tracey
Alysson, Ph.D. to claim the title. It is namely the case that all
medical practitioners are thought of as being "Doctors", despite the
fact that many of them do not have the academic qualification to
justify such a title. Therefore it may be that Tracey Alysson
attaches the Ph.D. in order to reassure her patients that they are
in competent hands.
Looking at her
entry in Psychology Today, I see that she treats
people with all sorts of problems, or "issues". For example, listed
on the site are: Gay or Lesbian issues, Grief, Divorce, Veterans,
Chronic Pain, and so on and so forth. I can well imagine that a life
of dealing with all this would drive a person crazy. Imagine
returning from the peaceful, beautiful people of Tibet to be
confronted with this, day in, day out, hour for hour. And then she
tells us - although very obliquely - that her marriage of 20 years
has failed, and that her husband abused her in some way.
But I learned some interesting things from the
book. For example, when preparing herself for the trip, she tells us
that she practices prostrations at home. She counts them, her unit
being one "mala",
which she tells us is 108 - the number of times Buddhists repeat
their mantras. Thinking about it, I recalled that I had memorized
the multiplication table in primary school, and there we have the
equation 9x12=108. But Buddhists must think of this more in terms of
4x27=108. That is, two to the second power times three to the third
power. A very nice combination, owing to the fact that both 2 and 3
are prime, but if we progress onwards to 4 then we no longer have a
prime. I find this to be much superior to the number of beads in rosaries, which
seem to be just multiples of 10.
Gurkha, by Kailash Limbu
The subtitle is: "Better to Die than
live a Coward: My Life with the Gurkhas".
The year 2015 marks the 200th anniversary of the
formation of the Gurkhas as an elite unit of the British Army. The
story is that when the English attempted to conquer Nepal 200 years
ago, they met with such resistance that the common soldiers fled.
Yet their commanding officer, Frederick Young, stood his ground, to
be captured by the Nepalese. Impressed with this display of courage,
the elite troops of Nepal offered to fight under such an officer.
The country of Nepal maintains its independence, having never been
conquered. Yet the English have continued this tradition of Nepalese
soldiers forming a Gurkha division within the British Army.
This is apparently the first book written by a
serving Gurkha, and it was written to commemorate this 200th
anniversary. It is not a history. Instead it is a very personal
account of the experiences of Colour Sargent Kailash Limbu during
the siege of Now Said in Afghanistan in July 2006. I was amused to
see that his name corresponds with the name of the holy mountain in
Tibet which Tracey Alysson, Ph.D. made so much of in the previous
He tells us about the spirit of his men. Fewer
than one in a thousand of the young men in Nepal who apply to become
Gurkhas are accepted. They surely form one of the most powerful and
effective fighting units in the world. This is another aspect of the
spirituality of the Himalayas. A wonderful camaraderie. A
concentration of life into this aspect of existence, represented by
the subtitle of the book. It reminded me of what Krishna has to say
in the Bhagavad Gita.
In Now Said a small group of Gurkhas, perhaps 20
or so, had to defend a walled compound of 200 by 100 meters, in the
middle of the town. They occupied "sangars"
on the walls, almost as in a medieval siege, yet with automatic
rifles, machine guns, grenades, and so forth, pinned down by snipers
and machine guns in 50°C, windless heat, wearing full body armor.
During critical phases they were supported by helicopters and A-10
close air support aircraft. The discipline and spirit of the Gurkhas
during this month-long intensive siege by the Taliban made for an
inspiring read. In the end they held out, losing only one man
wounded (who recovered), despite extremely intense fighting.
I enjoyed reading the military jargon in the
book. Coming under fire from the enemy is a "contact". During the
few lulls in the fighting, Kailash Limbu describes his conversations
with his best friend, Gaaz. He tells him, and thus the reader, about
his boyhood in the eastern mountains of Nepal, his wish to join the
Gurkhas, and his introduction to the troops. And they talk about the
superiority of their own traditions and culture when compared with
But still, what was the point of the invasion of
Afghanistan? It is clear that the people of Now Said wanted to rid
themselves of this occupation of their town by the British forces.
Their helpless, yet tenuous resistance will eventually free their
country from its foreign invaders as has always happened throughout
history. Although the action in Now Said provided the Gurkhas with a
good opportunity to display their fighting qualities, surely it was
a sad, extremely misplaced story with which to write a book to mark
their 200th anniversary. It served only to illustrate the fact that
a corrupt, degenerate English government, led by Tony Blair, was
able to misuse the Gurkhas in order to increase the level of chaos
and evil in the world.
What a mess "we", led by the U.S.A., have made of
Libya, Syria, Iraq, and all the rest. Perhaps millions have been
killed. And huge numbers have fled the horror, seeking refuge in a
Europe which was not primarily responsible for the mess. What
was the point of all this? Who benefits?
Is there a place for fighting spirit in the
modern world, or will people be happy to live as cowards? Perhaps
the role of the Gurkhas will be taken over by robots, mindless
drones, remotely controlled by flabby operators in comfortable rooms
who have nothing better to do than to complain about some sort of
"mental strain" which comes with the job. But how would it be if the
tables were turned, and those drones were not just killing Islamists
in remote, desert places? Imagine some future world where a superior
power were to have drones continually flying above Wall Street or
the City of London, and the bankers and hedge fund managers were to
be randomly taken out by rocket propelled grenades and heavy machine
gun fire, with normal people like us suffering "collateral damage".
The idea seems absurd, but the reality is that people really are
experiencing the analogue of this in parts of Afghanistan and the
western tribal lands of Pakistan. At least they are not cowards.
This is another book about Mt. Kailash.
(For some reason, in this book it is called Mt. Kailas, without the
"h".) In contrast to Tracey Alysson, Ph.D., who performed the
circuit, or "kora", using the technique of prostration, Colin
Thubron did a normal trekking tour. You can book exactly the same
tour through various travel agencies, which can be found by googling
the words "Simikot, Kailash, Trekking".
Simikot is a town in western Nepal, not far from
the border with Tibet. It has a small airport, and so you fly in
there from Kathmandu. It takes about a week to walk along the trail
to Hilsa, on the border with Tibet. For the author, at least, the
Chinese border guards were an unpleasant experience. After crossing
the border, you get into Chinese Landrovers and are driven past Lake
Manasarovar to Darchan, the beginning of the kora circuit. Then,
after walking around the mountain, you are perhaps driven from
Darchan over to Lhasa, then by some route back to Kathmandu. Colin
Thubron did not do this trek together with a group. Instead he was
alone with his two Nepalese guides, mainly sleeping in a tent.
I enjoyed the book, although it did begin to get
a bit tedious towards the end as he was circling the mountain. The
author has a very flowery style, somewhat like that of Patrick Leigh
Fermor. In fact he goes on at length about the Himalayan flowers and
shrubs he encounters along the way, lingering on their obscure
names. The color red is never simply red. Instead it is vermillion.
Long passages describe Tibetan religion and philosophy. Again, many
obscure gods, religious terms, festivals, and what have you. So many
obscure words. Thankfully, the Kindle allows easy access to a
dictionary. But as with Fermor, often the flowery words are
carelessly applied. One example which stuck in my mind involved a
cave Thubron walked in to on the northern part of Mt. Kailash. It
was a kind of monastery, filled with lamas, pilgrims, Buddhist
paraphernalia. And he remarks on the paintings on the walls, calling
them frescos. But surely they were just painted directly on the
On the other hand, in a way the book was more
honest than the book of Tracey Alysson, Ph.D. The path around Mt.
Kailash is filled with rubbish, the discarded remains of the
pilgrim's adventures. But for the people of Tibet, apparently even
this rubbish is considered to be holy, at least if it is deposited
near to the holy mountain.
Thubron keeps mentioning the Bon, or Bön,
religion. Perversely, Bon pilgrims circle Mt. Kailash in the false,
counterclockwise direction. This is similar to the Muslims who
circle their Kaaba counterclockwise. When doing so, the object one
is circling remains on the left-hand side. And yet the human brain
is asymmetrical, usually favoring the right-hand side. We feel more
in harmony with things when they are to the right of us. On our trip
to Nepal we enjoyed the feeling of circling the script-covered
rocks, the stupas, and turning the prayer wheels, all in a clockwise
direction. And when driving I feel much more relaxed, in harmony
with things, in England or Australia - and indeed, in Nepal,
although there I was only a passenger - where people still drive on
the left-hand side of the road.
This is a love story where the lovers
are Therese, who is just 20 years old, and Carol, 10 years older and
a married woman. So it is a lesbian story. Something which was
considered to be shocking back in 1952 when it was first published.
To be on the safe side, Patricia Highsmith published it under the
pseudonym Claire Morgan.
Gore Vidal published his homosexual novel, The
City and the Pillar, in 1948, but what a difference!
There the two characters are Jim and Bob, although Bob is not really
"gay". In the original 1948 version of the book, Jim tries grabbing
Bob, and after a struggle, he murders him. But in a revision of the
story in 1965 - which I read - Vidal changes things so that Jim, who
is the stronger of the two, homosexually rapes Bob. Unlike
heterosexual rape, where we hope that the horrible perpetrator will
be locked away for many years so that he is no longer a danger to
society, in Vidal's story, and perhaps in real life, the crime
brings few consequences. Thus I find it much more pleasant to read a
book about homosexuality between women. Of course writing this is
very unfair. Most men, of whatever persuasion, are not rapists!
Still, the discrepancy between the way society judges the one and
the other crime remains.
Anyway, this really is a love story, in contrast
to Gore Vidal's book. Therese and Carol drive off on a tour across
the USA. I read somewhere that the book inspired Nabokov's Lolita.
But really, Therese is much too old for any such thoughts.
The problem is that Carol has a daughter whom she
loves, and her husband, in the process of the divorce, uses the
daughter as a bargaining chip, setting the condition that if she
ever sees Therese again then she will never see her daughter. How
unfair. At the end, it seems that Therese and Carol will get
together despite everything, moving into an apartment in Manhattan.
Surely the daughter will come and visit her mother whenever she
wants. I can't imagine the ex-husband constantly locking his
The only thing that puzzled me was the title of
the book. Is it the idea that salt is supposed to be bitter, and the
price of the bitterness of being separated from her daughter was the
love for Therese? But I like putting lots of salt on things. Salt is
essential for life.
Mitch is in his late 30s, living in
Southern California. Mitch has problems with his father, Jim, in
Montana, and maybe they are the reason that his marriage is not
doing well. But just recently his father has called a number of
times, then abruptly hung up, saying nothing in particular. There
seems to be some sort of secret which Mitch doesn't understand and
which might be the source of his inner unrest. And so his wife
insists that he travel to his father in Montana in order to resolve
The book proceeds with alternate chapters, with
his trip "now", that is in the year 2007, and then describing things
in the summer of 1979, when Mitch was just 11 years old. The father,
particularly in 1979, is a gruff, uncomfortable, often violent man.
It took a while for the book to get going properly, but in the end
we learn lots of surprising things about Jim. Things he would prefer
to remain secret. A fascinating, satisfying story.
It starts off on a cold, icy winter
morning with Grace running away from something, jumping in her car,
being followed. She swerves to avoid a deer, slides off the road and
crashes into a tree. Then she wakes up in hospital, remembering
nothing. Not only nothing about the accident, but nothing about her
her life up to now. Who is she?
She learns that she had a boyfriend, Mike, who
was murdered just at the time she had her accident. A strange woman
comes, claiming to be her sister, and takes her home to recover, to
a house she doesn't recognize. Did she murder Mike? We follow two
policemen in their investigations. Is the younger one falling in
love with Grace?
This was a fascinating murder mystery which
reminded me of some of the Scandinavian programs which have been on
TV recently. The drug scopolamine
plays a role in the whole business. It is sometimes called "The
Devil's Breath". So I stopped reading and watched a video
about it. Dreadful!
This is not a good book to read if you have
anything special to do the next day. I stayed up till 3 in the
morning last night to finish it and see what happened. There are
many twists of the plot, but I thought the final one wasn't really
necessary, giving a less than happy ending.
The Saturday referred to is the 15th of
February, 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq, when hundreds of
thousands of people marched through the streets of London, New York,
and many other places, hoping to stop the madness. But of course it
didn't work, and here we are, twelve years and hundreds of
thousands, if not millions of deaths later, being inundated by
millions of refugees, fleeing the consequences.
I remember watching the news back then on that
Saturday, thinking that all those neo-con dreams of war were just a
bluff. How could they ignore the fact that almost everybody could
see what madness it would be?
The story in this book is not just concerned with
the marches in London. We follow the protagonist, Henry Perowne,
through the day. Henry is a wealthy, comfortable brain surgeon,
living in an extremely spacious house in one of the most exclusive
parts of London. He is not marching. For him, all those masses of
people are merely an irritation. Some time ago he has operated on a
professor from Iraq who has told him about the conditions of life
under Saddam. The whole country is one big concentration camp. Fear,
torture is everywhere. The secret police are killing people at a
prodigious rate. His colleague, the American anesthetist, Jay,
enthusiastically recommends bombing everything to smithereens. But
Henry can see both sides of the question.
Ian McEwan describes in great detail the streets
of London which come up in the story. I was able to follow things
using GoogleEarth. Henry's house seems to be on the south side of
Fitzroy Square. We are told that the living area is seven thousand
square feet, distributed over a number of stories. Henry's wife is a
successful, well-to-do lawyer, and he is a highly placed consultant
in the University College Hospital, a few hundred meters from his
house, along Grafton Way. It is not said how much money he gets from
the English National Health Service. But he seems to swim in it.
Henry has two children: Theo, a musician who
plays bass guitar with all the greats of jazz, and Daisy, who is an
up and coming poet, winning famous prizes, publishing her books of
poetry. And then there is Henry's father-in-law, who lives in a
magnificent castle in the South of France. He is a poet with an
absurd name: John Grammaticus. One of the greatest poets of all
time. It is not said that this Grammaticus gets all his money from
poetry. He must have inherited it.
What a family! I had thought the children of the
rich, knowing that they need do nothing, usually sink into a
comfortable indulgence of alcohol and other drugs. But perhaps the
author knows better.
Ian McEwan produces bestsellers. I've already
bought four or five of his books. He must be able to obtain a better
deal from his publishers than more obscure authors, and so I imagine
that his yearly income must be in the millions, but I would be
surprised if it were more than just a couple of million. Thus I
doubt if he would be able to afford a house in London on the scale
of Henry Perowne. All those Greek millionaires have inflated London
house prices into an extraordinary bubble.
Although it is only a short walk away, Henry
prefers to drive his Mercedes S500 over to Gower Street where he is
to have an early squash game with Jay. But after crossing the
Tottenham Court Road into University Street, his Mercedes crashes
into the BMW of Baxter, a violent hoodlum who is showing the first
signs of Huntington's disease. And so things develop. I'm not sure
if Baxter is supposed to represent Saddam, or if Henry is supposed
to represent the dithering Tony Blair. Still, I enjoyed the story.
Ian McEwan smothers us with medical lingo,
describing the work of a brain surgeon in a modern hospital. And so
I was constantly looking up the meanings of these obscure words in
the internet. In an Afterword we are told that the author spent two
years in an operating theater, watching the operations of a brain
surgeon of his acquaintance. This, and his observations on the
superiority of modern science when compared with medieval religion,
led to a feeling of empathy.
This book won the Booker Prize in 2011.
I've linked here to a Guardian review of the book, showing what
nonsense it is. What has ever happened to the Booker Prize? It seems
to have become a joke.
Still, I did read through this book of Ian
McEwan, and I even enjoyed reading it since everything he writes is
very smooth, easy to read. I suppose he meant it to be some sort of
a satire on the life he sees in London. But there is nothing to add
to what the Guardian reviewer has written.
A wonderful book. The lowlands are near
Calcutta - or Kolkata, as it is now supposed to be spelled. We are
introduced to two young brothers in the 1950s. The family is not
rich, but also not poor. The brothers do well at school, finishing
university. The older brother, Subhash, receives a scholarship to do
postgraduate studies in the USA, in Rhode Island, escaping the
poverty and cruelty of India. The younger brother, Udayan, remains
in India, becoming a communist, a dreamer who imagines a better
future for his country.
Udayan marries Gauri, also a student. They marry
on the basis of love, and against the wishes of both their parents.
Udayan becomes caught up in the whole business of political terror,
killing policemen, bankers, politicians. Eventually he is found out,
captured and shot to death. And Gauri is pregnant.
Udayan takes time off from his studies in Rhode
Island, traveling back to Calcutta to his family. He finds that
Gauri is consigned to a dark room, in disgrace. The parents are
unapproachable. And so, out of the goodness of his heart, he offers
to marry her, taking her with him back to America. She doesn't love
him. And for the parents, this is a further tragedy. A loss of their
In Rhode Island, Gauri is at first totally
withdrawn, and she gives birth to the daughter, Bela. For Bela,
Udayan is her father and she loves him far more than her mother who
distances herself more and more from the family. Gauri begins
sitting in on lectures at the university, gradually becoming a
successful student of philosophy. Time goes on. Bela is now 12 and
Subhash has established himself in his profession as a marine
biologist. When they are away for a short holiday in India to visit
the family, leaving Gauri at home, she takes the opportunity to
escape and become a professor of philosophy in a college in
California. But Subhash and Bela are very close. There is no contact
with the hated Gauri, and for her part, Gauri develops an
overwhelming feeling of guilt.
And so we follow these people through their
lives, becoming older, confused, unresolved. We think, perhaps
unfairly, of Gauri as an unattractive character. She continues to
idolize, almost worship the memory of the dead Udayan. Yet we learn
that Udayan, despite his youth, was a selfish, arrogant man. Also
the old, embittered parents of the brothers, and particularly the
mother, worship the memory of Udayan, while the caring, devoted
Subhash was nothing. Rejected. What a situation!
In the end Gauri returns to the India which
had rejected her, and Subhash, as an older man finds fulfillment in
the love of an American woman, a retired teacher who had taught Bela
This book was the best thing I've read in quite
The author is famous for his spy novels, many
of which have been made into movies. This one was too. Le Carré is
now an old man, and with the success which he has had, perhaps
many would say that he is beyond criticism. Nevertheless, I found
the book to be too long and the story to be implausible.
It mainly takes place in the British Embassy in
Kenya. Le Carré himself was a spy, sometime in his earlier life,
so he must know what things are like in these embassies despite
the fact that he tells us at the end that he is not familiar with
the British Embassy in Nairobi. Still, it is difficult for me to
imagine that the people there deal with each other in such a
primitive, unpleasant way, as is depicted in the dialogue of the
According to the plot, a large pharmaceutical
firm is developing a drug to deal with tuberculosis. Having
already tested it on guinea pigs, chimpanzees, and whatever else
they do, it is now ready to be tested on people. But rather than
using people in England or the United States, where the
possibilities for legal problems are great, the drug is being
tested on poor people in Africa. And it is found that many people
are dying from it. The drug is not successful. However, instead of
sensibly withdrawing it as any company in the real world would do,
the testing continues, trying out different doses, or whatever.
But what is the point? After all, if the drug is flawed, why test
it further? It will never be approved to be sold in the US or
Europe, where all the money is. To the contrary, the pharmaceutical firm would only be
exposing itself to massive litigation. Thus the plot of the book
made no sense, as far as I could see.
The plot would have made more sense if it was
simply concerned with the immorality of subjecting the people of
Africa to untested drugs. Maybe it is a scandal that such people
are not sufficiently compensated, or that they are not even made
aware of what they are being given. But that was not the story of
I agree that much of the drug industry is
corrupt. Particularly for old people, afraid of the inevitable -
death - large amounts of expensive drugs are consumed, often
making the patients sick and killing them off more quickly than
would otherwise be the case. This is a huge market, with huge
profits. Better to eat good food, enjoy life and live more in
harmony with the world, without drugs, or at least with the
But we shouldn't lose track of the fact that
there really are some drugs which are worthwhile. For example it
is said that many antibiotics are now becoming less and less
effective since the disease-bringing bacteria are becoming immune
to them. Thus it would be a good thing if new antibiotics were to
be developed. After all, without such drugs most surgery as we
know it would be impractical.
I can understand the fact that there are abuses
of the testing procedures for drugs in Africa. On the other hand,
as we have seen with the AIDS phenomenon, people who believe
themselves to be fatally ill are sometimes happy to try new drugs,
on the basis of hope rather than reality, even if they are killed in the process.
The story here is very similar to The
Lowland, which I just read a week or two ago. But gentler.
Nobody gets horribly murdered. There is no dwelling on the squalor
of India. We concentrate on a boy who is born in Boston to two
people of Indian descent. The father is - as always in Lahiri's
stories - a Ph.D. student in one or another New England university.
He travels to Calcutta to an arranged marriage and brings his new
wife back with him to Boston, where the son, Gogol, is born.
The name Gogol was given to the boy on the spur
of the moment, since the American hospital refused to allow the baby
to leave without a birth certificate. But the parents had been
expecting to receive a letter from a grandmother back in India,
containing the formal, proper name. Unfortunately the letter was
lost, and the grandmother had a stroke, rendering further
Gogol was named after the Russian author Nikolai
Gogol, the favorite author of the father. I had never read anything
by Gogol, and so after finishing this book I did read his short
story, The Overcoat, which is often mentioned in the book.
It is a depressing story, dealing with a simple, bitterly poor man.
A change from the usual 19th century Russian literature, where the
main characters are all members of the degenerate aristocracy.
But in this book, the young Gogol grows to hate
his name. His parents have thought of a better, formal name for him,
namely Nikhil. And so, before setting off for his university career
at Yale, Gogol has his name changed by deed poll to Nikhil.
We follow him in his career and in his search for
love; for a partner in life. He was together with Maxine for a
while. I thought she must have been very nice, and her parents were
most open and relaxed. They were so different from all those
hundreds of Indian Ph.D.s and their families which were continually
having get-togethers at Gogol's family's house. But then Gogol's
father died suddenly, and in a fit of depression he dropped Maxine.
Then his mother suggested that he get in touch
with the daughter of some friend of the family. Also an Indian
professor of something or other in an American university. The
daughter is studying something, spending years in Paris. Gogol falls
in love and marries her in an expensive, extravagant Indian wedding
(kilograms of gold jewelry; renting uncounted suites in a luxury
hotel for days at a time for all the guests, and so forth). But this
also wasn't the solution. They get a divorce.
At the end Gogol is 30 something, again alone,
perhaps about to set off on a more sensible life. The book was
beautifully written. It is a story to live in and I was sorry when
it came to an end.
The story here is concerned with the Berlin Spy
Tunnel of 1955. There was a documentary on TV just a couple of
weeks ago about the tunnel, and thus when reading this book I could
see that Ian McEwan made use of many of the details of the whole
business. Fiction comes in to it with Leonard Marnham, an Englishman
who is assigned to the American, CIA, project as an expert on
telephones and recording equipment. He falls in love with a woman in
those post-war Berlin days; her degenerate ex-husband attacks them,
and they kill him. The problem is then how to dispose of the messy
body, which they cut up into convenient pieces to be carried away in
two luggage trunks. So all of this made for an amusing, if somewhat
A sub-plot involved McEwan's apparent - although
usually grossly misplaced - fascination with mathematical-technical
matters. We see this in many of his books. Here it involved the idea
that the Russian wires which were being tapped contained messages
which were coded using some sort of secret code. Of course 1955 was
well before the discovery of public-key encryption based on the
difficulty of factoring large numbers. Therefore the wire-tappers
were faced with the problem of puzzling out possible systems of
Russian encryption. Undoubtedly a frustrating, time-consuming
business. But, according to the plot of the book, the Americans, in
their eager feelings of "we can do it!", had developed a technique
for reading an "echo" of the original, unencrypted message,
vibrating along the wires, but quickly attenuating, so that after 20
miles of travel, the echo was no longer detectable. What nonsense!
Perhaps one could speculate on such an idea with
respect to people using laptop computers these days, typing away in
clear text and expecting a transmission using the https internet
protocol to scramble things sufficiently. Maybe some of the wires
from the keyboard to the motherboard of the computer are interfering
with the wires leading out to the modem, giving an echo. Back in the
year 1955, that would certainly not apply. Somebody with a pen and
paper would manually write down the encrypted text before it ever
came near an electrical machine.
At the end of the book, the hero, Leonard,
revisits Berlin, finding everything so changed as to be
unrecognizable. It is the year 1989; communism is collapsing. We
think how wonderful it is that all that cold war stuff no longer
applies. In the 1950s, and into the 1960s, some highly placed people
in the American military were actively pursuing the idea of a first
strike against Russia with massive numbers of atomic bombs in order
to wipe them out in a great, euphoric catharsis. Thankfully that is
far in the past.
Many people think that the most dangerous moment
of the cold war was the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. But the
situation in the late summer of 1983 was much more critical. The
geriatric Ronald Regan had surrounded himself with a collection of
strange characters, war lovers who had no experience of war. They
were intent on provoking the Russians as much as possible at a time
of weak Russian leadership. This led to the false
nuclear alarm which nearly blew us all to smithereens. And
then, not knowing what they were doing, these advisers of Regan
organized the Able Archer
military exercise. The Russians thought it was for real. Their
planes were on the runways of East Germany with jet engines warming
up, loaded with fully armed atomic bombs, just waiting for the order
from Moscow to take off. Only at the last minute did the people
around Regan realize what they were doing.
These same people, who have themselves now
reached the bumbling, geriatric state of life, are again hell-bent
on provoking Russia. Meddling in the Ukraine, Syria, and all sorts
of other places.
This is a book of short stories. They
are all very good and well worth reading. Highly to be recommended!
All of them deal with Indian people who exist somewhere between
Calcutta and Boston, and lots of them - that is to say the men -
seem to be employed at MIT. The world is overflowing with successful
Indian scientists. Their wives are not scientists. Instead they are
the products of arranged marriages, keeping house, constantly
cooking Indian food.
It would be nice if the author would broaden her
horizons somewhat, to describe more fully her thoughts about other
people who are not necessarily from Calcutta or Boston.
There are two books here, written as a
linked - but rather far-fetched - novel, whose real purpose is to
deal with the events which occurred in the USA on the 11th of
September, 2001. The author is an airline flight attendant of many
years standing, and so she has a number of interesting thoughts,
particularly concerning the supposed mobile telephone calls from the
That which I suppose is the "official story" of
the whole business is related in a nutshell in this
YouTube video. Thinking about these things, using the internet
to satisfy a basic sense of curiosity, one soon learns about the dancing
Israelis and the ominous white moving van. A video summary can
be found here.
If true, and after all, there it is, I find the whole thing to be
almost unbelievable. What audacity, what chutzpah (to use the
Yiddish word, derived from the ancient Hebrew)! Imagine what might
have gone wrong. What if the sequence of detonations in the Twin
Towers had not been timed precisely correctly, or if some of the
charges in the demolition had failed to ignite, leaving even more
obvious evidence than was left anyway? And the demolition of
building number 7 was executed absolutely perfectly. What if a few
of the charges in the sequence had failed? One can only admire the
daring of the people behind it.
On the other hand, it seems to me that the
problem of getting the planes to fly into the buildings was not such
a great difficulty. After all, there were military exercises taking
place at the same time, confusing things for the air traffic
controllers. And as Rebekah Roth shows, the most likely scenario is
that the airplanes were taken over by remote control, with no actual
But these thoughts are obscured in the book by an
extremely silly, romantic story. The idea is that it is the year
2015 and the world has diverged from what we know to be reality. A
previous President of the USA has been impeached on the basis of all
of his corruption, together with the Vice President and various
other such figures. Rather than simply electing somebody else, as
would be the most sensible thing to do, it seems that the USA has a
complicated list, ordering the succession to the presidency,
analogous to, say, the rules governing the succession in the British
monarchy. And thus somebody named Joel Sherman is appointed
President. We are told that he is a member of the Tea Party
Observing things from here, way away from the
USA, we are told that the Tea Party people are all crazy. Well, my
mind is open on this, just as it is open for various explanations of
the whole "9/11" thing. As far as I can gather, this Tea Party
movement is not concerned with drinking tea. Instead it is concerned
with the idea that taxes should be lowered and government -
particularly the federal government of the USA - should be made
smaller and less intrusive. But what amuses me is the lack of
historical knowledge of these people. They name themselves after the
Party, which took place on December 16, 1773. Yet the people
behind it, John Hancock, and so on, were, in fact, smugglers. Tea
imported from England was, at first, expensive, since it was taxed.
Therefore there was a lucrative market for cheaper, inferior Dutch
tea smuggled into the colonies. John Hancock was one of the richest
men in the American colonies, based on tea smuggling. The English
then lowered the tax on tea, rendering smuggling unprofitable. Thus
those people dumped the English tea into Boston harbor. It was a
protest against lower taxes!
This sloppy, naïve approach is reflected in the
narration of the book. Our Tea Party President Joel falls in love
with Vera Hanson, a flight attendant of many years standing who,
almost single handedly, solves the "puzzle" of 9/11, thus becoming
endangered by the gangs of killers sent by "The Octopus" - that band
of evil-doers behind everything - to kill her. And then, in a style
almost reminiscent of a James Bond movie, she saves the world, and
her Joel goes on nationwide TV and tells The Truth. Thus at the end
of the second book, we presume that everybody lives happily ever
after in peace and harmony.
Do these Tea Party people, of whom presumably
Rebekah Roth is a member, really believe that this is the way the
world works? They themselves demonstrate, by calling themselves the
"Tea Party", that they are not really interested in truth. The
reality is that few people want to think about truth. Better to let
things go on comfortably with as little change as possible. The fear
of the unknown, that which is not, is to be avoided at all cost.
In the last 15 years we have gradually been
conditioned to accept the idea that Islam is evil and Muslims are
potential terrorists. Many hundreds of thousands, if not millions,
of people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and other such
countries have been violently killed as a result of this idea. Many
millions have been made homeless, fleeing the violence and chaos
which has been caused by the USA. Who wants to think about this
truth? What president of the USA could stand up to the sea of
mindless "patriots" who think only of "supporting the troops", from
afar, with tear-filled eyes?
The author is an academic philosopher,
and he is politically conservative. Almost everybody I know
professes to detest conservative people, but despite this I often
feel that I am in agreement with various points of conservatism. (Of
course I also detest the "Chicken Hawks" of the neoconservative
movement. They are the opposite of what I would define to be
conservatism, namely the preservation of the better qualities of
And as far as philosophy is concerned, I can't
understand why it still exists as a serious academic pursuit. After
all, the traditional questions such as: What is life?; What is the
basis of logic?; What are the properties of the physical world?; Why
do we exist?; What is art?, and so on, are either questions which
are more seriously dealt with by mathematicians, physicists,
biologists,... or else they are questions which by definition can
have no answer other than meaningless verbiage.
If the nature of human relations, morality, of
good and evil are also to be considered part of the field of
academic philosophy then it seems to me that these things are more
properly the subject of the novelist. And so I think it is a good
thing that Roger Scruton has written this novel. What does he, as a
conservative, think about the way society in England is developing?
We are seeing a huge flow of displaced people
making their way across Europe from the Middle East and Africa, most
of them hoping to reach Germany. What do they expect to find here?
Many of them are escaping from the violent chaos which has been
caused by the USA. They bring with them their own traditions which
are often opposed to the traditions of Europe. It is not difficult
to find dreadful videos on the Internet showing large groups of
young men belonging to this vast flow of people, shouting that they
are more fertile than the people of Europe. They will out-breed us.
They will impregnate European women to produce Muslim children.
Allah is great.
For a conservative thinker, such thoughts are
alarming. I suppose one could say that these Islamic young men have
simply been carried away in a spirit of euphoria, part of the
violent emotions of such a long, strenuous trek. The reality is that
if such people stay here then they will end up at the bottom of
society, doing menial, degrading tasks, living in areas which will
gradually degenerate into slums, festering sources of violence. Only
the few who are prepared to accept European values will succeed. But
indeed there are very many examples of the brightest, best young
people among these refugees.
The story of this book is of a family of refugees
from Afghanistan, living in a high-rise block which has become a
dangerous slum in some industrial city in the north of England. We
are reminded of the situation in some areas of Paris, where there
are many such buildings and where things seem to be getting out of
control. The family has two sons and a daughter. The daughter is
considered to be pure, a vision of everything that is perfect. But
women - or even young girls - who do not belong to the clan, and
particularly white English girls, are impure, dirt. They are free to
be beaten and raped. According to the system of morality of the
family, if a man has raped, humiliated, such an outside woman, then
that woman is his to do with as he pleases. Others are not free to
have the woman. The brothers, in cooperation with the pure, holy
sister, engage in a business of kidnapping poor, white English girls
and shipping them to Russia in order to be sold there as
prostitutes. The police and the social workers in the city are
afraid to investigate these things since they would then be accused
of racism - unfairly dealing with these Afghan refugees with their
separate culture and religion which must be respected. Of course
there is very much more to the book than this. The love of an abused
girl for her teacher. The catastrophe, and yet the redemption which
this leads to. A dreadful story. Difficult to imagine that it has
anything to do with reality.
Just in the middle of writing this I thought it
would be enjoyable to watch the friendly football game between
Germany and France in Paris, leading up to the European Cup
tournament in France next summer, which was shown on TV. During the
first half, two loud explosions could be heard, and it was thought
that they were just large firecrackers, set off by some of the
chaotic fans. But now it has emerged that the explosions were bombs,
killing many people. And in other areas of Paris there were
shootings. It is now after midnight and I am watching the coverage
coming up on the internet. It is thought that there was a large
theater in Paris where a pop concert was taking place which has been
taken over by these people. And it is said that they are
systematically murdering people in the theater.
I'm sure that most of the refugees flowing into Germany are
well-meaning people, hoping to escape the consequences of US
aggression and religious fanaticism. But where is it all leading,
how is this going to end?
Before reading this book I had gotten
started on another book, by William Morris, namely News
from Nowhere, a Utopian novel published in 1890. I
thought that it might be interesting since the Folio Society sent me
advertising a very finely made facsimile edition of the original
work for £100. Rather than spending so much money on a large book
which would just add more weight to all the bookshelves here, I
downloaded it for free from Project Gutenberg and started reading it
on my Kindle. The story is that a man in Victorian London observes
all the ugliness of his surroundings on a drab winter night and then
goes to bed and to sleep. He wakes up to find that it is now summer,
and he has been transported into the future, some way beyond the
year 2000 in London. All the ugliness has disappeared. People are
wonderfully happy. They give him lots of things. Money is a quaint,
forgotten concept. Everybody does things for the good of everybody
else. People occupy themselves with fine workmanship, arts and
crafts. The old, ugly buildings, iron bridges, and what have you,
have been done away with to be replaced with the finest, most
beautiful architecture. Clothes, and everything else, are
beautifully handmade, and people take pride in what they do,
rejoicing when they give the products of their labors as gifts to
others. The world has become a communist paradise.
Such were the dreams of people back then in the
19th century. They led to uncounted millions of deaths and lost
lives in the 20th century. Can we imagine an ideal world, devoid of
the evil of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and all the rest? This is
what the Folio Society is asking us to do, for £100. Over the years
I have bought lots of very interesting, fascinating books from the
Folio Society, always containing illustrations, often beautifully
created by well-known artists. But now, looking at the recent
catalogs they have sent me, I have the impression that the books are
being chosen to satisfy a romantic, and false, vision of England in
bygone days. I think they now have a different editor, and I have
failed to find a single book in their catalogs in the last few years
which is either interesting, or which seems worth the price they are
now charging. (After writing this, I thought I would open a large
envelope which the Folio Society sent me a couple of weeks ago and
which I hadn't bothered to open until now. It is the offer of an
edition of Alice in Wonderland, with illustrations by somebody named
Charles van Sandwyk, limited to 1000 numbered copies, at a price of
£495! What nonsense! I have the Folio Edition of 1961, containing
reproductions of all the original illustrations by John Tenniel,
together with Through the Looking-Glass, and it cost £20, or so,
back then when I bought it 20 or 30 years ago, before the
introduction of the euro distorted the economy to such an extent
that £20 now seems expensive for such books.)
So all of that was an introduction to the present
book by Roger Scruton. I soon lost interest in the William Morris
book and gave it up, but I did read Notes from the Underground
through to the end. The book is concerned with another dream world,
a nightmare of secret police, eavesdropping on the privacy of
everybody; namely the world of Prague in the 1980s. But it is not a
fun book to read. There is not a lot of action, characters reacting
to sudden changes. Instead it is the gradual, grinding vacuum of a
controlled life. The dream of the Gestapo, the Stasi, or of those
modern spying agencies, snooping into private lives on the internet.
The story is of Jan, whose mother painstakingly copied things of
little value which were forbidden under communism. For this she was
thrown into a communist dungeon. Jan meets a beautiful, intense, yet
secretive young woman, Betka. Perhaps she symbolizes the dreams of
those suffering under communism. The wish to escape into the free
world of the USA, whose President was a geriatric, second-rate
A reviewer in amazon.com quoted a sentence on the
first page of the book:
"One (policeman) was thumbing through our samizdat library with
slow, patulous fingers."
In contrast with many other reviewers, he did not give the book five
stars. And he tells us that the word "patulous" (which is not in the
Kindle dictionary) means "spread open", so that we have now learned
something useful from an amazon review. And he further tells us that
if you like that sort of thing, by all means get the book. But be
warned, it is filled with the tediousness of communism.
I must admit that in my ignorance I also didn't
know what the word "samizdat" means. If you are interested, and as
ignorant as I was, you can look it up for yourself.
The end of this book is an extensive
Appendix, dealing with something called Clérambault's syndrome; a
homo-erotic obsession, with religious overtones. It is an article,
supposedly reprinted from the British Review of Psychiatry,
a journal which, however, only
exists in the imagination of the author. Nevertheless, Clérambault's
syndrome, strange as it seems, does exist in the real world.
The story is about a religious fanatic, Jed, a
lonely young man who, in the midst of an exciting event, suddenly
and spontaneously becomes obsessed, falls in love, with another
young man, Joe, who unfortunately happens also to be present. And so
Joe becomes a victim of "stalking". When this imagined love is not
returned, the Clérambault sufferer's love turns to hatred, and he
plots to kill the object of his "love". Poor Joe, who has to endure
all of this, finds that his girlfriend has no understanding of the
situation, the police don't care, and everybody seems to think that
he is losing his mind. In the end, after the situation reaches a
climax, Jed is consigned to a psychiatric hospital and Joe can
rebuild his broken life.
All of this was an enjoyable read. But the scene
at the beginning, which didn't really seem to have much to do with
all this psychiatric stuff, was most interesting.
The scene is the following: It is a windy day. A
balloon, with a basket beneath containing an older man and his young
grandson, is coming in to land on a hilltop in the south of England.
It looks like a rough landing. Five men who happen to be near the
field on the hilltop - perhaps they are driving past on the country
roads, or perhaps they are working in the fields - run to help. The
older man gets out of the balloon, seemingly in a hysterical state
of mind. The young boy cowers in the basket. There are ropes
attached to the balloon which begins to ascend, owing to the fact
that the older man has jumped out. The other men grab the ropes to
pull it down. But a strong gust of wind blows the balloon away from
the hilltop. The men let go, but one hangs on. And he is carried
higher and higher, just clinging to the rope, hanging on for dear
life. Suddenly the balloon is hundreds of feet above the ground and
his hands begin slipping. Finally everybody sees the body falling to
I remember seeing a most unsettling
film many years ago of something like this that did happen in
real life. The moral of the story is: Don't hang on to a losing
cause for too long!
This book was first published in 1939.
The hero is Cornelius Leyden, a Dutch writer of crime stories. He
travels about in Europe in those pre-World War 2 times, thinking
about what to write next. By chance, during a short stay in an
elegant villa in Constantinople, he meets Colonel Haki, a highly
placed officer in the Turkish secret police. Haki tells him that he
enjoys reading his books, and he has thought of an interesting story
which Leyden might consider when writing his next book. But then
Leyden says that he would be interested to know what a real-life
murderer is like, in contrast to the invented fantasies of crime
stories. And so Colonel Haki takes him to the (not refrigerated)
morgue, to have a look at the gradually decomposing remains of a
criminal who had recently been murdered. Colonel Haki says that this
is Dimitrios, whose life of crime took him about Europe: Paris,
Italy, Albania, Romania, and what have you, leaving a trail of dead
bodies. But Colonel Haki also says that the secret police only have
a sketchy knowledge of Dimitrios' life, and the circumstances of his
death are also unclear.
Thus, as an amusing quest, Cornelius Leyden sets
off to find out more about the life of Dimitrios. A shady character,
Mr. Peters, becomes involved, and soon Leyden is delving deeper into
the underworld than is comfortable.
I found the book a bit tedious, but still, it was
an interesting read.
At the beginning there has been a car
crash, and the narrator, Leah, is being extracted from the wreck.
But then the story switches back and forth between whatever is
happening in the year 1995 and what is happening in 2014. In 1995
she is a teenage schoolgirl, imagining she is falling in love with
Adam, a classmate. This Adam is a dreadful character. Leah's
affection for him increases in direct proportion to the mess he
makes of both his and her lives. Her personality confirms the
shallowness of some women which, in the worst case, leads to the
battered wife syndrome, caused by the men they find attractive. Her
life in 2014 (not as a battered wife) is filled with guilt. She
avoids people as much as possible. Angst. She passively watches the
chatting on some internet dating site, afraid to join in. Suddenly
she gets threatening emails. She is attacked on the street and in
the Underground of London. Stalking.
Gradually the story is revealed. The tragedy at
the end of her school time. For me, the heaviness of the character
of Leah made for heavy reading.
On a whim, I looked at the internet site of the
Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken New Jersey, where my
father went to college back in 1920 or so. They included a list of
famous alumni. The author, L.
Sprague de Camp was on it, and investigating further, it
seems that the present book is particularly well known. It is a
kind of time travel, science fiction, in the style of Mark Twain's
Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. At the end of
Mark Twain's book, we are told that the time travel was really
only a dream. So that's OK.
L. Sprague de Camp, being a graduate of the
Stevens Institute, also refused to involve himself in the
impossibility of traveling into the past. And so he made use of
the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. In fact he
published this book in 1939, which was 18 years before Hugh
Everett made a "serious" business of this nonsense.
The idea is that at each possible quantum
mechanical event in the universe, every possibility is realized,
and the different possibilities result in different universes
branching off independently of one another. So at each instant,
there are gazillions of universes, all exploding into meaningless
nothingness. And at the next instant there are gazillions of
gazillions of universes, and so forth.
Thus there is no contradiction when the hero of
this book, Martin Padway, while gazing at the Pantheon in Rome in
1939, is suddenly struck by lightning and emerges from his stunned
shock, standing before the Pantheon in Rome in the year 535 AD. He
will not live to kill his mother, thus confronting us with the
well-known paradox of time travel, since he is now in a new
universe, branching off with all its gazillions of cousins from our
universe. And thus in his universe, his mother doesn't
So Martin, or Martinus as he is then known in
the Gothic Italy of those days, sets about using his knowledge of
the history of Rome to make a change from the history of our
universe. His idea is to change things so that the "dark ages" are
done away with in his universe.
Many years ago I read Gibbon's Decline and
Fall of the Roman Empire, but I must admit that I have
forgotten almost all of the countless characters which make their
appearance there. I do remember something about the phase with Belisarius
who, on the orders of Justinian,
went about the place, reconquering lots of territories - driven on
by the religious fanaticism of those days - only to subsequently
lose them. I shared Gibbon's exasperation. And so I was prepared
to let L. Sprague de Camp have some fun with it. Nevertheless, it
seems to me that he made many factual errors.
For example our Martinus decides to side with
the dull, but tolerant, Goths, rather than the fanatical,
intolerant forces of Justinian. Thus he becomes a great war hero.
We are told that the basis of his military success, apart from
exploiting the slow thinking, dull-witted people of those days,
was the invention of the cross-bow. Thus his troops could use this
strange new invention to deadly advantage. However, if we look at
the history of
the cross-bow, we see that it was well known for thousands
of years before our period. The people back then were not as dumb
as Martinus imagined them to be.
At the beginning, before he became a great
military commander, Martinus decides to "invent" the printing
press and publish a newspaper. There are difficulties. Papyrus
doesn't work all that well in the press, and the supply of vellum
is limited. But eventually he does invent paper, and so his paper
gets going. But it seems to me that in the atmosphere of ancient
Rome, even during the era of tolerant Gothic rule, anybody with
the audacity to publish a paper would soon be accused of sedition
and be thrown into a dungeon, thus quickly ending the story of
Martinus before it really gets going.
In fact Martinus, and thus this whole story,
can hardly measure up to the practical inventiveness of Hank
Morgan in King Arthur's Court. I was disappointed.
When we first meet the hero of this story, a
fellow named Gibson Vaughn, we learn that he has just gotten up in
the morning to do 200 push-ups, followed by 200 sit-ups. After
that, he has breakfast before heading for the fitness studio.
But no. He is not simply a brainless bonehead.
As the story develops he astonishes us with
amazing feats of quick-witted computer programming, dumbfounding
the best brains in Washington, D.C., and thus confounding the
plans of Benjamin Lombard, who wishes to become President of the
I am certainly impressed by these
accomplishments of Gibson Vaughn. Once, as a teenager, over 50
years ago, I did actually perform over 200 consecutive sit-ups.
But for a week afterwards my stomach muscles were swollen and
sore. These days I am barely able to do 10 consecutive push-ups
and 10 consecutive sit-ups. (Although my physio-therapist says
that one should avoid sit-ups.)
As far as writing tricky computer programs in
order to manipulate the internet is concerned, I have absolutely
no idea how that is supposed to work. Some time ago I did think
that it might be an amusing exercise to improve the design of this
home page of mine, elevating it above the primitive state you see
here. And so I tried looking at the source codes of other sites
which seemed to have more interesting designs. But I must confess
that the code made no sense to me. Looking at various online
tutorials concerned with the details of html, php, and whatever
else there is, I rapidly lost interest and turned to other things.
For me, the simplest method is to use the composer function of the
SeaMonkey browser. That produces this with little fuss, and less
Still, the book was a fast-paced, enjoyable
read. Nevertheless, the plot hardly seems original. Such
superhuman, "übermenschliche" heroes are standard fare. And
everybody knows that in the last 50 years - since the
assassination of JFK, perhaps with the exception of Jimmy Carter -
presidents of the USA have been either morally corrupt, or else
they have been mere figure-heads, doing as they are told by more
powerful interests in Washington.
It would be nice to read a story which would be
the opposite of this. Something inspiring. A Utopian novel about a
Washington D.C. filled with people of high moral character. But on
the other hand, books with unrealistic plots usually turn out to