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(2016)


Erskin Childers:
     The Riddle of the Sands
Eric S. Margolis:
     American Raj
Barthold Kuijken:
     The Notation is Not the Music
Colm Tóibín:
     Brooklyn
Scott Alan Morrison:
     Terms of Use
Michael Lewis:
     The Big Short
Tan Twan Eng:
     The Garden of Evening Mists
NoViolet Bulawayo:
     We Need New Names
John M. Hull:
     Touching the Rock
Anne Cuneo:
     Tregian's Ground
Niyati Keni:
     Esperanza Street
Ruth Ozeki:
     A Tale for the Time Being
Kamel Daoud:
     The Meursault Investigation
Herman Melville:
     Benito Cereno
Haruki Murakami:
     Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Norman Mailer:
     Harlot's Ghost
E. Howard Hunt:
     Guilty Knowledge
James Douglas:
     JFK and the Unspeakable
Robert Gordon:
     Can't be Satisfied
William Boyd:
     Sweet Caress
     Fascination
Helen Dunmore:
     Exposure
     The Betrayal
Erik Larson:
     In the Garden of Beasts
Liz Moore:
     The Unseen World
Helen Garner:
     The Spare Room
Liz Moore:
     Heft
Patricia Duncker:
     Sophie and the Sybil
Cixin Liu:
     The Three Body Problem
George Eliot:
     Daniel Deronda
     Middlemarch
Kurt Vonnegut:
     Galapagos
George Eliot:
     The Mill on the Floss
David Leavit:
     The Indian Clerk
Jane Gardam:
     Old Filth
Apostolos Doxiadis:
     Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture

The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskin Childers

    This book was first published in 1903, and I first read it 20 or 25 years ago. But now I've reread it. It's a kind of amateur spy story, concerned with sailing about in the North Sea, or rather amongst the islands of the German North Sea coast, in which the author tries to alert his English audience to the fear of a sudden Germanic invasion by sea. Childers himself did lots of sailing, including smuggling a load of guns and ammunition in July of 1914 from Germany to Dublin in order to aid the fight for Irish independence. And thus the extremely jingoistic tenor of the present book did not reflect the actions of his later life. His support of the Irish cause was also disappointed in 1922 when he was shot dead by a firing squad of the Irish Free State to avenge a trivial misdemeanor.
    But despite all these violent events of a century ago, the book was again an enjoyable read. People today associate those North Sea islands with summer holidays. You have to book early since all accommodation is soon booked out, at least during the times of the school holidays. Still, the beaches are enormous so that there is plenty of room for everybody, even to be quite alone with the sand and the dunes. So much better than those crowded Mediterranean beaches.
    I first read the book on the recommendation of a relative who was visiting us from Australia. He had a 30 foot sailboat with which he had many cruises along the Great Barrier Reef. But he also told us that it would be wonderful to cruise about along the North Sea coast, and also in the Baltic. Indeed, I envy people who have the good fortune to live more northwards, in Kiel, or in Bremen. How wonderful it would be to have such a boat to cruise at leisure in these waters. When I first arrived here in Germany, during my first summer here, I went with a friend to Denmark, staying for a week or two on the island of
Møn. Wandering about in the small harbors full of sailboats, I thought of renting a boat for a couple of days, or a week. But making inquiries, I was told that boats can only be rented to people who have sailing licenses. What a disappointment! After all, as a child I spent whole summers sailing about Barnegat Bay in New Jersey and, at least in those days, nobody had ever heard of such a thing as having to have a license to merely sail a boat!

American Raj, by Eric S. Margolis

    Every evening on the television news the main stories are concerned with Islamic "terrorism" and the continuing refugee crisis. Year in, year out, it is the same old story. Instead of watching all those hysterical, meaningless, day-to-day news items about the problems the "West" has with Islam, I would recommend this book by Eric Margolis.
    Why pollute our minds with the moronic cowboy rhetoric of George W. Bush, or the drone-like use of drones by Obama? How many times have my ears been abused by the noise coming out of the television, endlessly repeating the words "al-Qaeda"? On page 166 of this book, the author describes his visit to a shabby little shop in Peshawar, Pakistan, in the year 1986, to visit a scholarly-looking, tattered little man, Abdullah Azzam, who was single-handedly running a thing called the Mujaheddin Service Bureau on various scraps of paper. He had a "dingy little rooming house next to the office for Muslim mujaheddin headed for Afghanistan". It came to be known as "the base" or "the center", which in the Arabic language is expressed as "al-Qaeda". He explains to us clearly what "al-Qaeda" presently means in the Arabian world.
    And he explains the frustration, the anger, which has developed out of the experience of European colonization, and then the way the present rulers of the Muslim countries have been controlled by their past European masters, and now by the interests of the United States. From chapter to chapter we review the various countries. Algeria, with its dreadful history of violence imposed by France, finally had a free election, but the result of that election did not agree with that which France and the "West" both expected and demanded. Thus a military dictatorship has been imposed, resulting in untold thousands of tortures, deaths, mutilations. The same is true of Egypt. Also of Iraq, where Saddam Hussien - our man in the Middle East - was placed into power by the CIA, only later to be declared the greatest monster in history, resulting in the present horror which has filled the evening news for the past 25 years. And on and on it goes. The chapter on Chechnya is particularly sad. Much of this was new to me. How Stalin deported the whole nation to concentration camps in the east, resulting in the deaths of at least half the population, and then the more recent, mindless killings by the Russians, again liquidating a large proportion of the population.
    It was a difficult book to read. There are chapters entitled: "The Long Agony of Afghanistan", "The Final Solution in the Balkans", "The Curse of Lebanon". Where will all of this end? The prime minister of Germany, Angela Merkel, in an impulse of naïve exuberance, declared all refugees to be welcomed into the country. At least Germany, as a consequence of World War I, has no particular history of colonization, and so there is no historical anger similar to that directed against France and England. But still, Germany, and also Sweden, which also opened its borders, are not to be compared to the United States at the end of the 19th century, when the Statue of Liberty was erected. There are no endless tracts of empty land for the new settlers, cleared of the previous inhabitants, the Native Americans.
    Eric Margolis, in a final chapter, tries to think about how these conflicts might be resolved. For example it is not the case that Jewish people and Islamic people must remain intimate enemies. In past times, they lived peacefully together as respected allies, opposing Christian aggression. The example of the historical conflict between Germany and France, with its millions of deaths in the two world wars is considered, and compared with the peaceful situation today. In a more reasonable world the absurd conflicts of religion within Islam could be resolved. But all of this is undoubtedly wishful thinking. Even if the interests of the American "military-industrial complex" - resulting in this dreadful "American Raj" - were brought to an end, still it would take generations for the conflicts to calm down.
    As I've often repeated here, it seems to me that religion is often a source of evil, and so I am certainly not an admirer of Islam. On the contrary, the fact that less than a single handful of the billions of Muslims in the world have ever won a Nobel Prize (disregarding the meaningless "peace" prizes awarded to notoriously violent people), or have become great mathematicians, or musicians, speaks for itself. Not to mention the strange and repugnant attitude to women which seems to be prevalent amongst Muslim men.
    Will all of these people finally free themselves from their gloomy religious superstitions? Will the American military-industrial complex peacefully dissolve into productive, positive lines of development? I, for one, am not holding my breath waiting for such Utopian things to come about. And so I am watching less and less of the evening television news, turning my mind to more pleasant thoughts.

The Notation is Not the Music, by Barthold Kuijken

    Music is usually notated using a system of five parallel, equally spaced horizontal lines, with blobs of ink placed within this system to indicate the sounds of the music. Thus it is obvious that the title of the present book is trivially true. Most people consume music these days not by playing it themselves, but rather by turning on a radio, or putting little earplugs into their ears and connecting them to a mobile telephone, or something. The vast majority of the music they are listening to - all the forms of contemporary "popular" music - has usually been composed by the musicians themselves, perhaps not even written down on paper, and thus not notated in any formal sense. But the so-called "classical" music is notated by its composer, and the musicians performing such music are reading, interpreting, what they think the sounds associated with the notation should be. In the case of the standard classical orchestral repertoire, almost all the music was written between 100 and 250 years ago, and therefore it is impossible to simply ask the composer how to interpret the notation.
     Is this a problem? Surely music is there for pleasure. If we put some musical notation on a music stand in front of us and play through the notes as well as we can and find that it sounds good, well surely that is what classical music is all about. Often this music is wonderful. Listening to it, and very much more so, playing it oneself, can transport us into a rapturous state of feeling, almost an intoxication. What more can we ask of music?
    Many professional musicians or musicologists would dismiss this as being typical of the amateur, the dilettante. We should look for the true intentions of the original composer in order to achieve an authentic interpretation. Indeed, many of those composers who lived between 100 and 250 years ago, and also many of the composers of "classical" music who lived less than 100 years ago, tried to write more and more details into the notation of their compositions in an effort to establish more control over the interpretation. Taking this to an extreme, some modern musicians might say that there is only one, pure, perfect, authentic interpretation which represents the true intentions of the composer, and only this interpretation should be allowed. Thus, for them, the Notation is the Music!
    There is a problem with this if we go back even further, to music which was written more than 250 years ago. Looking at the original notation of such music, one sees that it is often just a sketchy, bare-bones outline of what must actually have been played. Something like what the performers of "popular" music these days might write down in order to remind themselves of what they want to play. Thus, the problem for the musician performing this Old Music, or Ancient Music, which was written before 1750 (the year of J.S. Bach's death, which is generally taken to be the definition of the point where "classical" music becomes "ancient") is to decide how to play it.
    Back in those days there were no radios or MP3 players, and so people who wanted to experience music generally had to play it themselves. Or perhaps they could hope that there might be some music in the church, to replace a boring sermon. Thus many books were published, giving instructions, or guidelines about how to play music. Today we can read those books to get an idea about the authentic interpretation of ancient music.
    Perhaps many people would say that these ideas are just too esoteric; who is interested in such dry, academic problems? Imagine the Nō theater of Japan. An ancient tradition, comparable to European renaissance music, but performed in a timeless, seemingly static way.
    I am reminded of a Japanese music student attending a course - or "master class" as it is called, since Barthold Kuijken is certainly the greatest contemporary master of the baroque flute. She was attempting to play the Sarabande from the third Suite of the first book of Jacques Hotteterre, which has the title "Le Depart". Of course it is a slow piece, but she was trying to play as carefully as possible, correctly, no mistakes. I remember seeing her tiny fingers, admiring the fact that she was able to acurately cover the small finger holes on her baroque flute. Such a contrast with Barthold's large, generous hands! And so began her lesson. A lifeless, meaningless sequence of flute tones. Then gradually we were led to think about the emotions of departure. As I recall, her lesson was in English, and so we thought about what it was like to depart from Japan, so far away, to study in Germany where even another strange language is spoken. (As I recall, I spent the rest of the course sitting next to her, whispering a sketchy translation of what was going on.) What was it like to leave everything behind and travel this far into the unknown, away from family and friends? And so, gradually, the piece became a very touching, moving interpretation of the music.
    Ten or fifteen years ago I went to a number of these courses. I suppose I was usually the only amateur. The other participants were music students or professional orchestral musicians who were interested in learning to play on baroque instruments. After all, these days a concert of baroque music, or a Bach cantata, played on "modern" instruments seems outdated, out of place. Barthold Kuijken's ideas were always interesting and instructive. We learned as much by listening to the lessons of the others as during our own sessions. In the evenings, when the younger students had retired to bed, a few of us - the "hard core" - stayed up over a bottle of wine for an hour or two into the evening, talking about lots of things, not just music. It was wonderful to get to know Barthold Kuijken in this way.
    This book was a Christmas present. It is a new book which he has published in 2013. I have been neglecting the flute recently. My project now, in retirement, is to try to learn to play the viol. A very difficult undertaking! I will not get so very far with this new instrument. But still, reading this book has reminded me about what a wonderful, inspiring man Barthold Kuijken is.

Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín

    Eilis is a young Irish woman in the early 1950s. She lives with her mother and her older sister, but she is unable to find a sensible employment in Ireland. A priest, Father Flood, is visiting from his faraway parish in Brooklyn, New York. He suggests that Eilis could immigrate to Brooklyn where he will arrange accommodation and a position in a department store. So she does.
    It's a simple story. Brooklyn isn't really as nice as Ireland. Yet despite loneliness, Eilis is able to exist. She gets to know Tony, from a poor Italian family in Brooklyn. Tony loves her, yet Eilis doesn't really know what she feels. Suddenly news comes that her sister in Ireland has died. Tragedy. Tears. She must go back to be with her mother, at least for a couple of weeks. Tony is unhappy. Maybe she will never come back. And so he begs her to marry him in secret, just to force her to return. She wilts under the pressure.
    Back in Ireland, people admire her, everything she has achieved in America. She puts off returning to Brooklyn. Nobody knows that she is married. Instead she is now in the middle of things. She is offered a comfortable job. She begins to fall in love with one of the young fellows she had known as a girl. But then suddenly, through the local contacts with Father Flood, the news that Eilis is really married arrives in the town. Disgrace, and Eilis flees back to Brooklyn.
    A sensitively told story whose moral is that even in today's world, marriage is not to be taken lightly.

Terms of Use, by Scott Alan Morrison

    This one was a fun read. The hero is being pursued by a professional killer and also by the FBI, and the chase takes him, along with his girlfriend, from San Francisco to Los Angeles and back. At the end, TRUTH prevails, and the hero, together with the heroine, are free.
    The story is concerned with an imaginary internet monster, called "Circles". This seems to be a fictional version of the real-life "Facebook". I must confess to ignorance when it comes to this theme, since I do not have a "Facebook" account. In fact I have never clicked into "Facebook", and so I have no idea what it looks like, despite the fact that many people have told me that they do use "Facebook". A large proportion of the population of the Earth feels compelled to entrust this "Facebook" business with many of their most personal details. Everybody knows that "Facebook" extracts these details in order to sell them to advertisers, and perhaps to the CIA, FBI, Homeland Security, GCHQ, and whatever else there is that doesn't already have the information. Despite this, I often see people walking about, or lounging somewhere, immersed in their smartphones, and if I have the rudeness to interrupt them, I am informed that they are checking their "Facebook" account.
    Well, the fact that nothing is private on the internet is something we have known at least since Edward Snowden told us about it. Therefore that is not the scandal at the center of the present story. Instead it is the idea that many of the so-called "friends" which these "Circles" - or "Facebook" - people have in their accounts are not real people. Instead they are computer robots, or "socialbots", mindlessly generating texts to occupy the minds of those immersed in "Facebook".
    In the present instance, a presidential election is immanent, and one of the candidates, whose name is Diebolt, has organized a great hoard of these socialbots to be inserted into "Circles" to tell their real-life "friends" what a great person this Diebolt is in the hope that they will then vote for him.
    I really had to laugh about this. As we know, the real-life "Premier Election Solutions", a company which was formally named "Diebold Election Systems", manufactures voting machines. These are computers which can be programmed to do anything you want, and in the case of elections within the USA, they are simply programmed to create the illusion that one particular candidate has won; namely the candidate who the "powers that be" have decided should win.
    Since I am not a citizen of Germany, I have never voted here. Nevertheless everyone can see that Germans are allowed to actually vote on real pieces of paper which are inserted into ballot boxes. At the end of the day, the representatives of the the various political parties which have taken part in the election in each local district spread the few hundred votes out on the table and count them in view of everyone. I suppose this takes an hour or two. The results are phoned in, and within an hour the television news is filled with the results of the election. At the latest by midnight, all districts have reported in, giving the final results. If there is a dispute, the election ballots can be simply recounted.
    I feel sorry for the citizens of the USA who still seem to believe that they live in a democracy, rather than their farcical illusion of a democracy.

The Big Short, by Michael Lewis

    This is not a novel, instead it is the true story of various Wall Street characters who, in 2005-6, anticipating the excitement that would befall the financial world a couple of years later, placed the appropriate bets and thus became rich. It all has to do with "credit default swaps" on "subprime mortgages". Things which were endlessly talked about on TV and in the newspapers in those days. As I understand it, the story of the book has now been made into a movie.
    In our culture banks operate according to the fractional-reserve system. They can lend out many times the amount of money they have on hand in deposits. Twenty or more times! Thus if you go into a bank and humbly ask for a mortgage, the bank manager will act as if he is concerned about whether or not you will be able to pay it back. But in reality the money you get from the bank is just a matter of the computer adding on some number to your balance. The money has been created from nothing. The bank has no particular stake in these new numbers. Instead it is pure profit. The bank is taking in 5% or 10%, or whatever it is, year for year, on the basis of having given you nothing of substance other than numbers in your bank balance. This is the reason that the bank in every town is the most opulent building there is, a marble palace.
    In earlier times this practice of demanding unfair interest on loans of money, and even on money which has been created by the lender out of nothing, was called usury, and it was illegal. But now, in our modern world where anything goes, it is business as usual.
    Of course it is often the case in life that we don't have the immediate means to achieve something of value. For example buying a house with a mortgage is a very common experience. As I understand it, in the system of Islamic banking, the bank would buy the house for you using cash it has on deposit, and you would live in it, paying rent. After an agreed time and rent, the ownership of the house would then be transferred to you. As far as paying money to the bank is concerned, it is the same as a mortgage. The difference is that the question of ownership and responsibility is clearly defined.
    In contrast to this we have the Wall Street system of buying mortgages from agents traveling about the place, selling mortgages for a fee to anybody. The mortgages are then combined into packaged bonds and sold on the bond market to people, or institutions, which have no idea and no interest in knowing who they are ultimately lending their money to. Credit default swaps are then bets on whether or not the debts will be paid off. Side bets on these bets are also made, and they are given the seemingly dignified name of "financial derivatives". But who is buying all of these involved bets, investing their money in them?
    Well, if you want to save for the future it is not a sensible idea to just accumulate bundles of paper money and put them under your bed. These days, with negative real interest rates, it is also not a good idea to put your money in the bank. The alternative is to invest in stocks or bonds, or more simply in investment funds dealing with such things. Stocks, or "equities" as they are called, are shares of ownership in public companies. The day-to-day selling price of these equities fluctuates up and down like the waves in the ocean, often being driven wildly in one direction or another by people nervously speculating on becoming rich. These waves are described in detail, openly, in the newspapers and on many sites on the internet. The dealings in equities are carefully regulated. And over time, as business prospers, the value of these equities generally tends to increase.
    The bond markets are different from this. As Michael Lewis describes it, they are often opaque. Complicated, obscure jargon is used to confuse the investor. For example the "insurance" against the default on a debt is not called insurance, but rather it is called a "swap". The fine print on debt contracts is often almost impossible to understand, leaving it open to interpretation, litigation, read by nobody except the lawyers who have formulated it. Since there is often no open, regulated market, it is impossible to know what the fair price for a given bond is. I suppose this is like thinking about the value of your house. You imagine it is some given figure, but who knows what somebody would really be willing to pay? If you were to put it up for sale on Ebay then maybe the price might be something one day and something wildly different on another day.
    Thus people dealing with bonds rely on the credit rating agencies to tell them how safe a given bond is. Moody's, Standard & Poor's and Fitch are the big Wall Street agencies. Can these agencies be trusted? For example the financial world - and the political world as well - quakes if, say Moody's suddenly deems French government bonds to be not AAA, but rather just AAa, or something. A slight nuance of difference. But do these arbiters of value really know what they are doing? They give "junk bonds" a BBB rating. Yet when those Wall Street banks put together hundreds of junk mortgages into junk mortgage bonds, the agencies rated them AAA. Why? The rating agencies assumed that each individual event of a mortgage default was statistically independent of each other possible default. This is clearly nonsense. For example the entire housing bubble might go pop! Or the "teaser" mortgage rates might all change almost simultaneously to much higher "usury" rates.
    Michael Lewis shows that the people working in the credit agencies were the nobodies of Wall Street. The poorest paid, least intelligent people. Incompetent. A joke.
    So who lost all of the money in the Wall Street panic of 2008? For example the Deutsche Bank was deeply involved in this whole mortgage bond business. And it was their standing joke that the stupid people taking up all of this debt, who actually believed in the nonsense put out by the credit rating agencies, were in Düsseldorf. The insiders simply said the word "Düsseldorf", and everybody had a good laugh.
    Düsseldorf is the capitol of the German state of North-Rhine Westphalia, which is where my pension comes from. The government is a coalition of the socialists and the green party. They seem to spend billions on all sorts of things, and yet there is always more to spend. I suppose this is due to the fact that the euro currency gives a vastly underrated exchange value, making German products for export artificially cheap, and imports, and foreign travel, expensive. Thus billions can be lost on Wall Street junk bonds, and nobody really cares.
    But it is not only the German taxpayer who has paid for the junk bond bubble. President Obama, in all his wisdom, decided that the American taxpayers would buy up at face value all the worthless junk bonds left floating about the place and thus hundreds of billions, trillions, have been transferred from normal taxpayers to the gamblers on Wall Street. They are all unimaginably rich. Even those who, formally, "lost" their bets, received many millions. Michael Lewis interviews these people, and he tells us about the details of their personalities, often trying to make a joke here and there. But in the end, he tells us that it was a sad story.

    So what is the situation now, in the year 2016? I don't pretend to have any great understanding of these things. In fact I can't understand it at all. Huge amounts of liquidity have been added in to the economy which should lead to a huge inflation. But where is the inflation? When will it come, if at all?
    The central banks have introduced negative real interest rates. Of course those rates must be set somewhere near the levels of the free market, and since governments have produced such floods of new money, the demand for money is much less than the supply. Thus saving is punished and borrowing is rewarded.
    House prices in the USA have again ballooned up to the level reached at the height of the last bubble in 2007. Government debt has also mushroomed. Germany, France and so forth guarantee the debts of other countries in the EU to the tune of many hundreds of billions, if not trillions. Fantasy amounts that could never be covered.
    The big investment banks have amassed derivatives, bets on various debts, which are so massive as to be beyond any level of understanding. I have read that the Deutsche Bank alone is exposed to derivatives on the order of hundreds of trillions! This is many times as great as the total economic activity of the entire world in a year! If, say, we assume that these derivatives cost as little as 25 "basis points" - that is a quarter of one percent per year - then the fees on one hundred trillion will be 250 billions per year! Undoubtedly they are much more than that. How is this possible?
    Surely all these bets are just fantasies. It is not as in the real world where those who fail to pay their gambling debts are then terrorized by the Mafia, or the Yakuza. All the hundreds of billions, trillions, of fantasy fees flow back and forth between Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Bank, and what have you, nearly cancelling themselves out. These are all the trillions which have been given to them by the taxpayers. Some tiny percentage, say a trillion, is quietly siphoned off each year into the pockets of the insiders on Wall Street, or the City of London, and might thus actually enter into the real economy. Perhaps the rest - well into the thousands of trillions, that is to say, quadrillions - is kept in flow, guaranteeing that these banks remain too big to fail.

    Do I envy these Wall Street bankers with all their riches? Some time ago I read an article about a psychologist who studied the relationship between wealth and happiness. He concluded that while, obviously, too little wealth leads to unhappiness, the same is true of too much wealth. The optimum degree of wealth is a figure many orders of magnitude less than that which these Wall Street bankers possess. In fact it is just about equal to the pension which I thankfully receive from the government of North-Rhine Westphalia. And so I am happy enough, without feeling particularly sorry for those poor rich bankers.

The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng

    The author writes in a poetic style. The story takes place in Malaya, or Malasia as it is now called. The narrator is Yun Ling, a woman of Chinese descent who, when she was young, had been thrown into a Japanese concentration camp during the Second World War. The narration takes place alternately during the early 1950s when she has become the apprentice and then the lover of Aritomo, a Japanese gardener living in the mountains of Malaya, and then when she is an older woman in her 60s, residing in her house in the garden, which used to be Aritomo's, who has long since died, looking back on her life.
    She tells us much about Japanese gardens, and about Aritomo. Apparently he was a peaceful gardener, living in Malaya since before the war, and we are told that he saved numbers of people from the horrible fate suffered by many in the Japanese occupation. It was a nice story of the reconciliation the woman has found after all the horror she had experienced under the Japanese.
    But then towards the end, the story takes us in other directions, telling us things which we really didn't want to know. Tatsuji, an elderly Japanese man, visits the elderly Yun Ling with the purpose of writing a biography of Aritomo, including reproductions of his various art works. He was not only a gardener. There are prints in the traditional Japanese style. He was a master of Zen archery, and so forth. Tatsuji gets onto the subject of tattoos, telling us that he is a connoisseur of this art form as well. He says that the most famous tattoos have been preserved. After the tattooed person dies, the corpse is then skinned, and thus the tattoo is conserved in some sort of museum.
    What a revolting idea!
    Then gradually, after a chapter or two describing all the tortures and sufferings Yun Ling experienced in the Japanese concentration camp, it comes out that her lover, Aritomo, only a few years afterwards, executed a large scale, Yakusa-style tattoo on the back of Yun Ling. And she agrees to donate this tattoo to Tatsuji's collection. How disgusting!
    This twist of the story seemed to me to be totally implausible. For comparison, imagine a story of an emaciated Jewish survivor of a Nazi concentration camp emerging from his fate to then become a student in a traditional German sword-fighting society, proudly displaying to the world the scars on his face. The story would not only be absurd, it would also be considered to be the height of bad taste, an insult to the sufferings so many had experienced.
    And then we are told that Aritomo did, in fact, have a role in the Japanese occupation. All the great art works of Asia were being taken - stolen - and then put into wooden boxes and hidden away in caves dug in the ground by the slave laborers in the concentration camps. And Aritomo had something to do with this.
    I can't imagine that the Japanese were really wasting their time on such things. But who knows? Perhaps the author, Tan Twan Eng, knows something about it. Crime and corruption often seem to be associated with art.

We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo

    NoViolet Bulawayo is the pen name of the author, whose real name according to the Wikipedia is Elizabeth Zandile Tshele. She is a native of Zimbabwe, but has moved to the United States where she studied and has become a writer.
    And so, perhaps, this is more or less a story about her experiences. In the first part we see the world through the eyes of Darling, who is a 10 year old girl. She lives in a slum, somewhere in Zimbabwe. (Could it be in the city of Bulawayo?) But she had not always lived there. Formerly her family had lived in a sensible house, and they prospered. But then bulldozers came and wrecked everything. The people fled to the slum, named Paradise. This was, and is, the Zimbabwe of Robert Mugabe. Did the author also experience such disruption and deprivation as a child? In any case, the dialog in the book is that of an innocent young girl, playing with her friends, often experiencing horrible things.
    Then the story changes. Darling is now in the US, in Detroit or something, living with her aunt, or cousin; a woman in her 30s. Darling is 15, and then gradually she becomes older, finishing high school. We read about various episodes. At first she cannot speak the same slang as all the others and she feels out of things. But then she has a couple of school friends, also from Africa. They have picked up all the typical expressions of the American teenager. They do lots of improper things on the internet. But then they think about "home", about Zimbabwe and their native language.
    Darling visits an old man in an old people's home who sometimes becomes disruptive. He has immigrated from Zimbabwe many years ago, and now, as he is losing his mind, he begins shouting in his native language. Darling can pacify him just by listening, and understanding. He tells us that his people cannot go "home" because they came to America on tourist visas, or whatever, becoming "illegals", unable to reenter the country. They worked in the most demeaning occupations, poorly paid. He would like to go home to be buried with dignity, according to tradition, alongside his ancestors.
    In the final chapter Darling calls her mother, who has stayed in Zimbabwe, via Skype. She then speaks with one of the few of her childhood friends who has also remained there. And Darling is told that she has lost her soul, living in America, a strange land without meaning.

Touching the Rock, by John M. Hull

    This is a book about blindness. It is not a novel. Rather it is a collection of the author's thoughts, written down every few days after he had become totally blind. He tells us about the difficulties a blind person has when getting about in the world. How easy it is to lose the sense of orientation, to become lost. How it is to be with his children, but to be unable to know what they look like. And he tells us about his struggles to accept his fate.
    John M. Hull was an Australian who became a professor of theology in England. He was certainly a very sincere man, yet, to be honest, I find the concept of theology in the modern world something which is difficult to take seriously. The author tells us of his travels from one theological conference to another around the globe. But then his blindness is a problem.
    As he describes it, theological conferences seem to be such that the participants gather together in a room and chat with one another, getting to know new people. I can scarcely imagine what they must talk about: passages in the Bible which they have found to be inspiring? obscure points of Hebrew grammar? Who knows? Surely it is very different from a conference on mathematics, physics, medicine, or whatever, where people are keen to learn of the latest developments in some concrete field of study.
    (On the other hand it is true that the ancient universities of Europe were established in the medieval period for the purpose of training young people to become priests. Thus they were primarily theological in nature.)
    The problem with being a blind professor of theology at a theological conference is that it is impossible to just walk up to the various participants and have a short chat with them in order to get to know everybody. Therefore the author devotes many of his essays to the difficulties this brings.
    He also tells us that he has read the biographies of many blind people and he finds it difficult to understand how some of them were able to just accept blindness and to go on with life as if it had never occurred, creating successful businesses, organizing societies for helping others, setting out in a new path of life. For him, the problem is to understand blindness. What is the meaning of blindness? Why has he been fated to have it?
    Are these theological questions?

    Vision is something which is so basic that it is difficult to imagine what it must be like without it. Large parts of the brain are devoted to the analysis of visual information. So I suppose it is natural that John M. Hull experienced dramatic visual dreams. The brain tries to do something with all that grey matter which isn't getting the information it craves. The brain remains intact; just the eyes are defective.
    When reading the book we learn about the sequence of events which led to the author's blindness. As a young boy he had asthma and skin problems. Then, still as a boy, he developed cataracts in his eyes. The surgical procedure was to pierce the lenses, thus emptying them, but causing the vitreous humor to move forward, resulting in a detachment of the retinas. He had numbers of further operations without telling us the details, presumably to try to attach the retinas of his eyes back in place. All of this took place between the initial operations in the 1930s in Australia and into the 1970s in England.
    I have had some experience of such things. But thankfully the field of ophthalmology has made tremendous advances when compared to the situation 50 or more years ago. Problems with my right eye led to a vitrectomy, then retinal detachment and various further things. A number of operations. I am left with a bit of visual distortion, but my vision is still 60-70% in that eye, and it has remained so for the past 5 years. I feel sorry for John M. Hull, who would have had a similar result if he had only been born 50 years later.
    I suppose repairing an eye might be compared with repairing a camera which has developed some fault. You can put various kinds of inert oils into the eye to press the retina back into place. Then with a laser the retina is fastened onto the back wall of the eye. And of course these days the standard surgical procedure for dealing with cataracts is totally routine.
    But this is not to suggest that we should leave everything to invasive medicine. Years ago I read Aldous Huxley's The Art of Seeing, which made a great impression on me. It is important to use the eyes properly, not staring for hours at books or computer screens. The eyes should be relaxed by looking casually about from time to time, enjoying being out in the open on a clear, sunny day, not hiding the eyes behind sunglasses and thus subjecting them to additional strains. And this is particularly true for children whose eyes are still growing.

Tregian's Ground, by Anne Cuneo

    Francis Tregian the Younger lived, according to the established records, from 1574-1618. This is the Elizabethan - Jacobean period of English history. The time of Shakespeare, but also of those great renaissance music composers: William Byrd, Thomas Morley, Orlando Gibbons, John Dowland, and so on. Much of their music was collected in a manuscript called the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. It is unclear who compiled the music in the manuscript, but one plausible candidate is Francis Tregian the Younger.
    This is an historical novel, imagining what his life might have been like. It really is well worth reading. Much better, and certainly very much better researched than such stupid, yet acclaimed recent books as Wolf Hall, or How to be Both, both of which also attempted to tell stories about the renaissance period.
    In those days religion was everything. Having the wrong religion, or, horror of horrors, no particular religion, would have meant being thrown into some dungeon, tortured by the inquisition. Life was brutal. And yet it produced great works of art.
    We follow Francis Tregian from one imagined adventure to the next. He is a kind of Forrest Gump of the renaissance, becoming a close friend of Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth, King Henry IV of France, the famous English musicians, various Italian musicians: Claudio Monteverdi, and so on. He is an expert swordsman, horseman. He speaks Latin, Greek, Italian, French, Dutch, etc., all without the slightest trace of an accent, passing in each country as a native speaker. He plays the virginal with such virtuosity, artistry, that everybody is overwhelmed. Queen Elizabeth almost falls at his feet, moved with such passion by the beauty of his music. He also plays the organ, and the lute as well, with equal results.
    Oh well. I suppose it is understandable that the author, Anne Cuneo, got carried away in this manner, having spent years researching her subject. When coming to the end of the story we find that she has attached a further chapter, describing exactly what is truly known about the life of Francis Tregian the Younger. And she explains quite plausibly how the story she has told could possibly be the way it was. I see that in the Wikipedia entry for Tregian, which is full of the researches of somebody named Ruby Reid Thompson, cold water is dumped all over this narrative of Tregian's life. But still, I prefer Anne Cuneo's version.

Esperanza Street, by Niyati Keni

    Although the author is an English woman, of Indian extraction, this book is concerned with the Philippines. At the beginning it is said that Esperanza Street is one of the oldest streets in Puerto. Looking at the Wikipedia page for Puerto, it doesn't seem to correspond with the story in the book. I imagined that the Esperanza Street of the book must have been somewhat nearer to Manila. A suburb along the coast, maybe to the south. It is certainly not an elegant, rich neighborhood. Part of it is a slum, but other parts have sensible buildings. Even old, elegant buildings.
    The narrator is Joseph, who comes from a poor family. His mother has died, his father works on the docks. He has been taken in as a house-boy to a boarding house. The family there imagines that it is of higher quality than most of the other families in Esperanza Street. But the father, who has died somewhere in the past, gambled away everything, forcing the mother to turn her house into a boarding house. Joseph is a servant, but he is also a member of the family, going to school, being brought up almost as a son.
    From chapter to chapter we learn about many further characters. The book is beautifully written. The central idea is that a man who grew up in the slum of Esperanza Street has become a rich real estate developer, and it is his project to develop Esperanza Street into the modern world. Shopping malls, car parks, and so forth. Getting rid of all that old garbage. Disrupting the lives of the poor slum dwellers.
    What is the author trying to say? Should the old garbage be preserved? Or should urban development be allowed, yet excluding shopping centers and car parks? Or should everybody in Esperanza Street set off in a great migration, hoping to find paradise in Germany?
    A generation or two ago, Singapore was in a similar situation. A filthy slum. Traveling through such countries one has the feeling that it is all this garbage which is causing the mess. Singapore changed course dramatically. Throwing garbage onto the streets, spitting, was dealt with vigorously. Offenders were thrown into jail, whipped. Men were not allowed to have unkempt beards or long hair. And gradually Singapore changed from being a slum into being one of the wealthiest countries in Asia.
    Would I prefer to live in Singapore, or in Esperanza Street? Well, if that was the only choice then obviously Singapore would be preferable. But I am happy to be here. A real paradise.

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

    At first, I really enjoyed this book. The story is that Ruth, a middle aged woman living on Cortes Island in the Strait of Georgia, between Vancouver Island and the mainland of the Pacific coast of Canada in a town called Whaletown, goes walking on the beach and finds a plastic bag which seems to have been in the water for a long time. In the bag is a diary, written in English, by a Japanese girl named Nao, or Naoko, telling about her unpleasant life in Tokyo. It's a long, involved story which we follow from chapter to chapter, alternating between Nao's diary, written perhaps ten years ago, and Ruth's reading about all of these things now. Ruth is especially interested, since her mother was Japanese. But she herself grew up in the US. She is a writer who divides her time between the extremes of Whaletown and New York City.
    In the middle of all this, out of curiosity, I decided to google the author, Ruth Ozeki, and I found that she shares all of these attributes with the Ruth of the story. In fact, according to her website, she is married to Oliver Kellhammer, a German-Canadian environmental artist. And the Ruth of the story is also married to Oliver, an environmental artist! What is this? A novel, or an autobiography? Is she sharing with us all the intimate secrets of her real life? And what is an "environmental artist"?
    According to the story, and presumably in real life as well, logging companies go through the islands of the Strait of Georgia, clearing out tracts of land, shipping the lumber off somewhere else. Then new trees are to be planted - of the same species which have been chopped down - in order to aid the process of reforestation. This is not environmental artistry. Environmental artists believe that they know better than the official forestry authorities. They believe that in the process of global warming, the Strait of Georgia will soon have a tropical climate. Thus they plant tropical, or at least temperate, trees, knowing that such species will thrive in the coming climate catastrophe. But according to the story of the book, the Canadian authorities are opposed to this form of artistry.
    So who is right?
    After a few minutes of internet search I was unable to find any Canadian sites giving historical temperature records at particular weather stations. But I was able to find the nearest US weather station, which is located at place called Olga, on Orcas Island at the south end of the Strait of Georgia. The plot of mean temperature for the period 1890-2014 is given here. Even when peering carefully at this through my age-weakened eyes, I am unable to see the temperature doing much of anything in the past 125 years.

    But to get back to the book... Nao was having a terrible time at a Tokyo junior high school. In the popular imagination, the Japanese are often portrayed as being polite, peaceful people. But the pupils in Nao's school abuse Nao in ways which I find to be difficult to imagine. Reading about the details was sickening. Even the teacher took part in the tortures. This is beyond anything I can understand, at least on the basis of my school experiences many years ago, or those of the children here in Germany. How could the real-life Ruth, the author of the book, write such things?
    According to the short description of her life on her internet site, she has spent much time living in Japan, so she must have more than a casual acquaintance with Japanese life.
    And then we have the story of a son of Nao's great grandmother. He was a kamikaze pilot in the Second World War. According to the story, the abuse he had to endure at the hands of his superiors amounted to a continuous physical torture. Again, a sickening read.
    Where was all this heading? What would be the resolution of the story of the book? I kept reading on, getting towards the end...
    But what a disappointment!
    The whole thing degenerates into some sort of New-Age gobbledygook. We are treated to another retelling of the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, gleaned this time from the pages of the New Yorker Magazine by Ruth's husband, Oliver. We are told that in another possible world, the Japanese are really nice people, and both Nao and the kamikaze pilot live happily ever after. And in a still further possible world, something else happens. And so on. Who knows? Take your pick of whatever you want.
    The real-life Ruth tells us in her internet site that she has recently been ordained as a Buddhist priest by the Brooklyn Zen Center. Well, OK. But somehow it seems to me that, despite her partial Japanese ancestry, ordination by the Brooklyn Zen Center is not to be compared with such things in an ancient Buddhist temple in Nepal, or India, or Japan. Is the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics part of the official beliefs of the Brooklyn Zen Center? Such a thought may be neither here nor there; but still, I wish she had given us a more sensible ending to the book.

The Meursault Investigation, by Kamel Saoud

    This book only makes sense if you have previously read Albert Camus' classic short novel The Stranger. That book was first published in 1942, in the middle of World War II. It is strange to think that Rommel - the Desert Fox - was moving through North Africa at about that time, although he did not make it as far as Algeria. In contrast, The Stranger is about lethargy, indifference. The "hero", Meursault, is a Frenchman, although he lives and grew up in the French colony of Algeria. On a hot day on the beach, blended by the sun, not really thinking about anything in particular, he shoots dead an Arab, emptying his revolver into the body. And then he more or less sleepwalks through the consequences, telling us about his strange feelings. The Arab is nothing. A symbol of the meaninglessness of life.
    The present book, which has recently been published (in French, but of course I have read the English translation), takes up the story from the point of view of the brother of "The Arab". He is angry about the fact that "The Arab" has no name in Camus' famous book. So he tells us the name. The Arab is named Musa. The narrator, Harun, was a small boy when his brother Musa was murdered by Meursault in 1942. But it is now, and he is an old man. He goes on and on about his anger about all sorts of things. He hates France and all the things it did to Algeria. And he hates Islam for all its hypocrisy. (Why is wine supposed to flow in heaven for the blessed, whereas it is forbidden here on earth?)
    Well, as we have read in the book by Eric Margolis, reviewed above, the people in those Islamic lands have much reason to be angry, even before that fool, George W. Bush, set the US military into a frenzy of killing in Afghanistan, Iraq and various other countries. The French were, possibly, even worse!
    And so the narrator of the present book tells us how, in 1962, at the end of the Algerian war of independence, he takes his revenge, killing in cold blood a Frenchman, a day after Algeria gains its independence. He is arrested. But the crime he is accused of is not really the murder, rather it is the fact that he did not bother to be an active participant in the Resistance against the French.
    If he had killed the Frenchman a day before, then it would not have been murder, rather it would have been an heroic act of war. He laughs at the absurdity of this, and the parallel with the guilt of Meursault who was executed not for the murder, but rather for the fact that he had not wept openly at the funeral of his mother. But in contrast with Meursault, he is released from prison, since the killing of a Frenchman does, to some degree, absolve him of the crime of not participating in the revolution.
    The book has been a great success in France, winning the prestigious Goncourt prize. I suppose this is the guilt of the present generation for the crimes of its ancestors. And the anger of those Algerians living in the high-rise slums of Paris.
    I found the book to be a bit tedious. All of this anger does not compare with the poetry of Albert Camus.

Benito Cereno, by Herman Melville

    This short novel is based on a specific incident which took place off Santa Maria Island, on the coast of Chile, near the city of Conception, in the year 1805. An American ship was anchored near the island for the purpose of collecting seals, or seal skins. Another ship came into view, the Chilean ship Tryal. It seemed to be acting strangely. The captain of the American ship, Amasa Delano, had himself rowed over to the Tryal in one of his ship's boats, and he found a confusing situation. He was told that the Tryal had been lost in a storm, then suffered weeks of drifting aimlessly about. Many of the crew had died of scurvy and thirst. There were many slaves on board, and a few Spanish seamen, but he was told most had died. The captain of the Tryal, Benito Cereno, behaved very strangely. He was always closely accompanied by his servant, who was also a black slave.
    In Melville's fictional account, Amasa Delano thinks only of helping the poor people on the ship. He has water brought, a few provisions from his ship. But he is puzzled by the behavior of Benito Cereno. What can it mean? Does Cereno plan to attack his ship, killing his men? Surely that cannot be so. In the goodness of his heart he dismisses such absurd thoughts.
    Approaching the final scene, he lowers himself into his boat to return to his orderly, well-run American ship with its fine sailors. They push off, but then, suddenly, Benito Cereno jumps after him into the boat, begging to be saved. The Tryal has been captured by a mutiny of the the black slaves. They have brutally slaughtered most of the crew. And so Amasa Delano sends two of his boats to the Tryal to capture it, which his intrepid sailors carry off with flying colors. And then they all sail over to the nearby port of Conception where justice is done, and the book ends with long extracts translated from various Chilean protocols. Amasa Delano is everywhere praised for his wonderful character.
    Just reading through the book, it seemed to me to be nothing more than the narration of an interesting and dangerous event in the life of a gung-ho sailor in the days of yore, with the flowery language of Herman Melville spicing up the original narration of Amasa Delano in his "Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres" (1817). You can read the relevant chapter online here. I have also found a longer essay dealing with all of these things here.
    As with everything that Herman Melville wrote, this book has been the subject of extensive literary criticism, attributing deep meanings to the most trivial details. As far as I can see, academics are limited by two defining facts:
  1. Slavery is obviously evil, and
  2. at least for American academics, Herman Melville is beyond all criticism.
Therefore the only conclusion can be that, contrary to the thoughts of a simple-minded reader such as me, this book is a subtle, obvious, satire on the evils which such people as Amasa Delano visited upon the world.
    Well, OK.
    Obviously slavery is evil. Particularly slavery based on racism, as it was practiced in the Americas. But the happy circumstance that slavery has now been done away with, at least in its overt forms, and in most of the world, obscures the fact that it was a commonplace in former times. Mungo Park, in his "Travels in the Interior of Africa" during our period, around 1800, tells us that at least in West Africa, all manual work was done by slaves. In Europe, the serfs were essentially slaves. Serfdom gradually came to an end in England by 1500, but in most of the rest of Europe it only ended after the French Revolution. Slavery was the usual form of labor.
    In the case of the Tryal, the slaves were not being kept in chains. They were being transported as passengers on the ship, accompanied by their owner, far outnumbering the sailors. A sad spectacle.
    Is it absurd to compare this with the modern spectacle of hundreds of Africans crowded together on small, floundering boats, trying to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy? The conditions must be as bad as on the slave ships of old. Yet they submit themselves freely to this ordeal, dreaming of the life they see on television, or the internet. If they survive the passage to Europe, will they find the life of their dreams, or will it be mere displacement, the drudgery of menial labor? How sad it is that they find themselves unable to fulfill their dreams at home, in Africa.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami

    Unusually for Murakami, there is almost nothing of the surreal in this book. It seems that some Japanese names are associated with colors, but the name Tsukuru Tazaki is colorless. As an adolescent schoolboy, Tsukuru was in a clique of five young people, the other four of which had colorful names. Then after graduating from school and going on to college he was suddenly dropped by the others. They refused to have anything more to do with him. What had he done wrong? Nobody told him. And so he fell into a state of depression.
    But he was in college in Tokyo, while the others stayed in their hometown of Nagoya. Is it part of the Japanese character to live life in tight-knit social groups and then to feel suicidal if the group you happen to be in breaks up? Surely it would have  been more natural for him to just get on with life. Forget those horrible friends who turned out not to be friends after all.
    So Tsukuru led a sober, solitary life, and we meet him in his 30s. He has become an engineer, responsible for constructing train stations which, I suppose, from reading various Japanese novels, seem to be an important part of Japanese life. He has become friendly with a woman in her late 30s, and perhaps for the first time in his life he believes he might be in love. But she tells him that he must first go back to the people in his old school clique and find out why they had dropped him. This leads us back to a few little adolescent dramas, and some touching reunions.
    I enjoyed the book. It reminded me of some of his short stories. Much better than 1Q84.

Harlot's Ghost, by Norman Mailer

    I started reading another book: Dallas '63, by Peter Dale Scott. But after wading through about a quarter of it, I gave up. It seemed to be doing nothing more than explaining the idea that perhaps Lee Harvey Oswald, the supposed assassin of John F. Kennedy, was being used by James Jesus Angleton (who was the head of the the CIA's counterintelligence unit from 1954 to 1975) in an attempt to find a suspected Soviet mole within the CIA.
    Oswald was stationed in the top-secret air base in Japan in the 1950s, servicing U-2 spy planes. Then he defected to Russia, married Marina, and returned with her to the United States. Therefore, even if he was not directly an agent of the CIA, both the CIA and the Soviet KGB must have been greatly interested in him. And so, according to the thesis of Peter Dale Scott's book, the wily James Jesus Angleton planted records of Oswald in the files of different divisions of the CIA, each of which differed from the others in various obscure ways. The idea was that if it was found that the KGB had a certain version of the life of Lee Harvey Oswald, then that could be traced to some particular filing cabinet within the CIA, and so the KGB mole could then be identified.
    All of this is undoubtedly interesting for the dedicated disciple of assassination research. But I just like a good murder mystery, and surely the murder of JFK provides us with the greatest such mystery of them all. Such obscure facts related to Lee Harvey Oswald soon become boring.
    Looking around for something more interesting, I came across this book by Norman Mailer. It doesn't really deal with JFK's murder. Instead it deals with the background to the whole thing. It is an historical novel, describing the life of the fictional Harry Hubbard, whose mentor in the CIA is a character named Hugh Montague. In a final chapter, or appendix, at the end of the book, Mailer tells us about his researches into the CIA and his characterizations of both real and imagined people. Hugh Montague is modeled on James Jesus Angleton. But Mailer felt that he had insufficient knowledge of the character of Angleton to give him his real name. On the other hand, many real-life CIA spooks do appear in the book. We read much about William King Harvey and his dealings with Harry Hubbard. And then the enigmatic E. Howard Hunt plays a central role. All of the characters express great admiration for Allen Dulles, despite the fact that it was he who placed the seeds of evil which have now come back to haunt the United States: the coup d'états deposing Prime Minister Mossadeq of Iran in 1953 and President Arbenz of Guatemala in 1954.
    Harry Hubbard is first stationed in Berlin to work with "Bill" Harvey on the spy tunnel. Then he is in Uruguay, under E. Howard Hunt. And finally he is in Miami, organizing the Bay of Pigs with Hunt, then Operation Mongoose with all the well-known characters in that business: Bill Harvey, Edward Lansdale, and of course both Jack and Bobby Kennedy. Everything is centered on the problem of Cuba. How to assassinate Fidel Castro. Frustration grows. All those wealthy Cubans who had fled to Miami want results. Not to mention the Mafia which had lost its casinos, brothels, and what have you, in Havana.
    The plan for the Bay of Pigs was to get a few hundred fighters into the swamps on the south coast of Cuba, then to confront the newly elected Jack Kennedy with the fact that they were in trouble. The CIA expected him to order a full-scale invasion. But he didn't. Then came the Cuban Missle Crisis. While the rest of the world was aghast at the prospect of atomic warfare between the USA and the USSR, the CIA, the Mafia, and the Cuban immigrants of Miami became euphoric, hoping for the great war of annihilation which would free Cuba. But their hopes were dashed when Kennedy and Khrushchev agreed to a reconciliation. And so we hear grumblings that the solution might be to assassinate Kennedy, rather than Castro.
    Is this what really happened? Various elements within Operation Mongoose - which was being supervised by Bobby Kennedy - turning their assassination efforts from Fidel Castro to Jack Kennedy. I suppose it is the most sensible, plausible theory, notwithstanding the claims Lyndon Johnson and his Texas Oil oligarchs also had for prime responsibility. But Norman Mailer only hints at such things towards the end of the book.
    The character of Harry Hubbard stands for what must have been the classic CIA type of the 1950s and 60s - and perhaps for the CIA of today as well. Ivy League, in particular Yale, Skull and Bones. White, rich, old New England ancestry. On the side of Christianity in its battle against the forces of Atheism. Much of the narration takes place through letters exchanged between Harry and his lover, Kittredge, Hugh Montague's wife. (Looking at the Wikipedia entry for James Jesus Angleton, Kittredge doesn't really seem to correspond with his wife.) But then Harry also becomes involved in a long, turbulent affair with Modene Murphy, who is modeled on the real-life Judith Campbell Exner, who was the lover of Jack Kennedy, Frank Sinatra, and the Mafia don, Salvatore Giancana, all more or less simultaneously.
    The whole book is immensely long. The printed edition runs to 12 or 13 hundred pages. Norman Mailer filled the book with countless obscure, antiquated words. But they were all in the Kindle dictionary, so they must be official words in the English language. Many of these words, while appearing to be extremely learned, refer to, or are associated with properties related to the organs of human reproduction. In fact most of the dialogue in the book is rude, primitive, aggressive. Can it be that people in the CIA, when privately interacting with one another, carry on in such an adolescent manner? Is this the reason they are making a mess of the world? Or is it simply another instance of Norman Mailer's dirty mind, as we have seen it in his other books?
    Despite all of this, I enjoyed the book. For example I hadn't really thought about all of the details of the Bay of Pigs. And so it was interesting to zoom in on the various villages and roads around the bay, using Google Earth. And I hadn't thought so much about E. Howard Hunt. Of course he was one of the Watergate burglars, or wiretappers, or whatever they were.
    What was Watergate really about? Was it to do with the CIA getting rid of Nixon, who they thought had gone too far, opening up relations with China, withdrawing from Vietnam? This is no longer part of the present book, since that essentially ends in 1964.
    E. Howard Hunt was not only a CIA spook, alleged assassin of JFK, and questionable operative of the Nixon White House. He also was a very prolific writer, publishing huge numbers of spy stories and numbers of (perhaps) non-fictional accounts of various goings on as well. Amazon seems to lack interest in this character since only a couple of his books are being offered in the Kindle format. But still, my interest is piqued.

Guilty Knowledge, by E. Howard Hunt

    Well, this is certainly not great literature! But I did persevere, and I managed to read through this book all the way to the end.
    E. Howard Hunt was in the middle of all sorts of scandals and sleaze at the highest levels of US politics, so I thought that the spy "thrillers" that he wrote might be interesting. Perhaps they would give a good picture of what life in Washington D.C. is like, written by someone who really did live that life.
    The narrator, Steve, is a lawyer, and he spends half of the book drinking hard liquor. Straight whiskey, or on the rocks. Or "building" a martini. The heroine is Alison, a rich woman senator who is about to be nominated as a candidate for the presidency, presumably of the Republican Party, given E. Howard Hunt's politics. In one scene towards the end of the book, Alison is in the shower, getting ready for a pleasant session in bed together with Steve, and he surprises her by " building" a martini, taking off his clothes and joining her in the shower with two glasses of liquor. This scene stuck in my mind on two levels. First of all, it seems to me that even hardened alcoholics such as Steve and Alison would have difficulties drinking their martinis while standing under a shower. But also, since Alison is on the point of becoming the next President of the USA, and she is a woman, my mind was inevitably drawn to the real-life woman who is presently striving for this position. A preposterous vision.
    Why describe the plot of this absurd book? There are four murders which Steve deals with as a kind of woozy James Bond. And how can one explain the fact that of the two reviewers at amazon (at least in its German incarnation), one gave the book five stars and other one gave it four stars?
    I assume that all of E. Howard Hunt's other books were as bad as this. A sad legacy of a wasted life

JFK and the Unspeakable, by James Douglas

    A very thoroughly  researched book. It seemed almost half of it consisted of notes and references supporting the argument of the text, making it a long book to read.
    Perhaps many people would say that the Kennedy assassination is ancient history, irrelevant to the world today. But that is not true at all. Our world would be quite different if it had not happened:
    The present book does not really concern itself with all of the minute technicalities of the actual shooting of President Kennedy: the sequence of the shots fired, examinations of photos taken at the scene, the eye-witness accounts, magic bullets, and all that. But when getting into the book I was interested enough to find a series of nine YouTube videos, television programs which were aired 10 or more years ago, giving a fascinating picture of those things. The first episode of this series, entitled "The Men who Killed Kennedy", is here. I was particularly interested in episode eight, giving a completely different angle to the picture we have of the supposed assassin, or "patsy", Lee Harvey Oswald. On the other hand, the book does give us a clear picture of the situation Oswald was in. And the fact that the conspirators had established an equally complex assassination scenario in Chicago was new to me. It also involved a patsy - like Oswald - who had served in the secret U-2 base in Japan. His name was Thomas Arthur Vallee. It failed because the Chicago police found something they shouldn't have, and so president Kennedy cancelled the trip to Chicago.
    It seems that the author of the book is a theologian, or at least he studied theology as a young man. Thus he often quotes an obscure Catholic monk, living somewhere in Kentucky, or whatever, in the 1950s and 60s, who wrote letters to people about the danger and immorality of all these atomic bombs. He also makes much of a letter or two which the Pope of those days wrote to Kennedy and to Khrushchev, dealing with the same subject. The book sometimes becomes repetitious, returning again and again to this, and also to an obscure speech Kennedy gave at the American University in Washington D.C. shortly before his assassination, and to tentative second-hand contacts he had with Khrushchev and Fidel Castro.
    The CIA had been created just after the second world war by President Truman for the purpose of giving the president the information he needed, particularly that concerning foreign affairs. But unfortunately the CIA got completely out of control after Allen Dulles was appointed as its director. And then we have Curtis LeMay on the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States, whose goal in life appeared to be the execution of a massive first strike against the Soviet Union with all the combined atomic bombs at his disposal. But it was not only these two. Almost all of those people in power around Kennedy seemed madly set on atomic warfare. How strange! How crazy.
    But what were those people, and what are the people in those same positions today? They are the people behind big money. The military-industrial complex. All the billions and trillions which flowed into their pockets during the Vietnam war. And the huge money to be made making atomic bombs. Not to mention the natural resources of Indonesia and all of those other places around the world. And on the side of the Russians who had suffered 20 or more million dead in the second world war, there was a fear of the war those in the West seemed to be advocating.
    While Kennedy and Khrushchev may have been the representatives of the two opposing powers, they were ultimately faced with the problem of dealing with this absurd situation. After Kennedy's assassination, Johnson became president. As has often been shown, Johnson had many reasons to wish Kennedy dead. He was on the point of sinking beneath the weight of his own corruption when Kennedy's assassination saved him. But the actual assassination and the cover-up must have been something on a scale beyond that which Johnson alone could have accomplished. In the end, all of these people: Allen Dulles, J. Edgar Hoover, LBJ, the Cubans and what have you, were happy to get rid of JFK. And then they also got rid of Bobby Kennedy, and perhaps John Kennedy, Jr. as well, a man who had the makings of a charismatic candidate for highest office and who had vowed to find the truth behind the earlier assassinations.
    So what has been the result of all this? LBJ didn't agree to bomb the USSR - and thus the rest of the world - into smithereens. Indeed, this isn't really what the conspirators wanted. They wanted the money for "real" wars. So he gave them their Vietnam. Indonesia. And then, when Russia gave up on communism, they - the heirs of those cold war warriors - needed something new to keep the tax money flowing in. An eternal war on Islam. And more recently, sanctions and aggression in the direction of Russia.
    Is this the "New World Order"? A "peaceful" coup, founded on the assassination of President Kennedy? I suppose it is. For example it is obvious that President Obama, a seemingly pleasant person in "normal" life, has practically no say at all in his own government. Probably all future presidents will also be nothing more than figureheads, putting on a vacuous show for television, saying what they are told to say.
    Is this a bad thing, this fake, pretend democracy for the TV-addled brains of the masses? After all, the Roman empire lasted for hundreds of years after it had ditched the idea of democracy. And the reality is that there has been no atomic war in the more than 50 years since the assassination of President Kennedy.
    When I first arrived in Germany more than 40 years ago, the air was often filled with the howls of air-raid sirens, testing them, making people feel that the end of the world was near. Low flying jet fighters, practicing their sorties at an altitude of just a few hundred meters, often shattered the air with a sudden explosive sound, roaring overhead. All that is now in the past. And yet there are still thousands of atomic bombs, waiting for what?
    There is no denying the fact that the existence of this unimaginable power of destruction has prevented major war. But wars on a smaller scale continue. Even the Kennedy which is portrayed in this book as a purely visionary figure striving for peace could not have stopped these wars if he had remained alive. For example the basic conflict between Islam and The West is something which might have played out even in the absence of the CIA, or indeed, of Israel.
    In today's world there still are people wanting to use atomic bombs. "Small", "tactical" ones. Eventually, perhaps in 50 or 100 years, or hopefully still longer, some hot-heads will certainly use them, somewhere in the world. A few cities incinerated. A few million people killed and maimed. And then a horrified world will banish again the thought of atomic bombs for a couple of generations until a new generation of evil, irresponsible hot-heads reappears. But I think that the danger of all-out nuclear war is over. The extinction of humanity will have to wait for some better opportunity.

Can't be Satisfied, by Robert Gordon

    The subtitle is "The Life and Times of Muddy Waters". For those who are as ignorant as I am, Muddy Waters was a Blues musician. I had never heard of him before reading this book. One of his recordings which was highly praised in the book was the 1972 version of "Mannish Boy", which you can listen to here.
    Of course there are many kinds of music, and many kinds of musicians. One can like, or dislike these various kinds of music for one reason or another, or for no reason at all. Muddy Waters certainly had great emotional intensity. This especially inspired the English band The Rolling Stones. For me, this heavy, slow music has little appeal. But I can imagine that in a sufficiently drunken state, in some sleazy club, it would be possible to dance to it.
    According to the book, Waters was illiterate, alcoholic. He produced myriads of children from countless women who had thrown themselves at him after his concerts. Most of these women seem to have died of overdoses of heroin. The children were, for the most part, abandoned to their various fates.
    Some might say that Muddy Waters should be admired merely for the fact that he was of African-American ancestry, being born and growing up in the Deep South of the United States. But such an attitude would be racist, implying that these unpleasant attributes of Muddy Waters would tend to apply to all people of his background. This is thankfully not the case.

Sweet Caress, by William Boyd

    This novel is about Amory Clay, who was born in 1908 into a family of middle, or even upper class pretensions in England. Amory becomes a professional photographer and experiences the 20th century up until her death by her own hand in 1985. The book contains many shadowy, somewhat out of focus, black and white photos which, we are told, she took during her life. And so the book has many parallels with Boyd's earlier, much praised, Any Human Heart. But I preferred this book. Not so much name-dropping, and Amory is a more pleasant character than Logan Mountstuart, the hero of Any Human Heart. A beautifully written book.

Fascination, by William Boyd

    A collection of short stories. They are quite varied, many written as if they are part of a journal being kept by the narrator. Most of the characters seem lonely, seeking fulfillment. It has been a week or two since I finished the book, and frankly I must admit that I've forgotten much of it. So I suppose that the stories were forgettable, at least for me.
    One thing that did strike me was that William Boyd sprinkles his texts with French words which, obscurely, are also English. (At least the Kindle dictionary considers them to be English.) For example rather than using the simple, robust English word "red", he substitutes the word "cerise" in many of the stories. This reminds me of the book of one of those circumnavigators of Mt. Kailash which I read a while ago who also avoided the color red, many times substituting the word vermilion.
    But despite my forgetfulness, I do remember enjoying the stories when I did read them. And according to his biography, William Boyd divides his time between London and the South West of France, so we can understand his love of the French language.

Exposure, by Helen Dunmore

    The story takes place in 1960, or thereabouts, in London. Simon is a civil servant. The Admiralty. The Official Secrets Act. Don't talk, for otherwise you will be thrown into some horrible, filthy, dangerous dungeon, filled with brutal warders and other inmates.
    On the other hand, life in the Civil Service is elegant, debonair, at least for the higher-ups, all those Cambridge homosexuals: Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, Kim Philby and what have you. During his years at Cambridge, Simon had a short but torrid affair with Giles, sealed with a number of love letters. And so Giles invites him to have a career at the Admiralty. Although Giles is a Soviet spy, he makes no attempt to recruit Simon. He considers Simon to be a simple-minded fellow who has actually married a woman named Lily, and has three children. How absurd! But he still thinks fondly of Simon.
    Giles takes secret papers home at night to photograph with his Minox camera. But in a night of heavy drinking he falls down the stairs, floundering in blood and a concussive fog with the incriminating papers on a table up the stairs. Groping for a telephone, his first thought is to call Simon to come and take the papers away. And so Simon, happily at home with his wife and children, faithfully sets off in the middle of the night to help Giles.
    All of this leads to catastrophe. Prison. Lily's life seems ruined. I suppose I shouldn't describe more of the plot, thus spoiling the story for anyone who might want to read the book. As with all the books of Helen Dunmore, this one was an absorbing read.

The Betrayal, by Helen Dunmore

    Andrei is a doctor in a hospital for children in Leningrad. It is the year 1952. He, his wife Anna and her brother Kolya are a small family, having survived the 900 day siege of World War II. Apparently they were characters in Helen Dunmore's earlier book about Leningrad. One day he is asked by a colleague to take over a particular case of a sick boy. The boy's father is Volkov, a well-known commissar in the Soviet communist secret police. Everybody is afraid. With a wave of the hand, a wink of the eye, the slightest whim, Volkov could send people away to be murdered, tortured, exiled for 50 years of hard labor in Siberia.
    But Andrei, foolish as he is, does not dismiss this request of his colleague. He agrees to look at the boy, and so he is drawn into his downfall. The boy has a cancerous tumor in his leg, which must be amputated. Andrei is not a surgeon, but Volkov appoints him as the person responsible for his son. Another doctor, a Jewish woman, Dr. Brodskaya, does the surgery. All seems to go well. But then after some weeks, it is found that the cancer has spread to the boy's lungs. Nothing can be done.
    And so the punishment begins. Brodskaya is murdered, probably after having to endure horrible tortures at the hands of the secret police. Andrei is arrested and transported to the torture chambers in Moscow. It was horrible to read about these things. At the end of the book, Helen Dunmore provides a list of the books and articles she had used when preparing this story. A number of them were true-life accounts of people who actually survived this horror. Andrei was not subjected to the worst forms of torture. He was often beaten by the guards, sometimes into unconsciousness, but the main technique was to force him to stand continuously, even for days on end. As I understand it, this was a standard practice in the Nazi concentration camps, and similar things also occurred in George W. Bush's Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
    In the book, Volkov becomes disgraced for some unexplained reason, and so he commits suicide by shooting himself in the mouth. We are disappointed that such an evil character is allowed such a simple exitus from this earth. But then it is satisfying and even amusing to dwell on the death of Stalin, the monster behind that real-life evil. Since everybody was afraid of him, and none of the doctors was as gullible and simple-minded as was the Andrei of the story, he was left alone, untreated. Good riddance!
    In this book, and presumably in real life, we have the strange contrast between the purely evil behavior of the oppressors who seem to enjoy tormenting people and the peaceful passivity of everybody else. We have recently had the case of a 95 year old man who, in his youth, was a soldier at the Auschwitz concentration camp being tried in a court of law for the murder of hundreds of thousands of people. He may, or may not, have been involved in the murder and torture of prisoners. The US experience in Iraq was that many of the soldiers who were assigned to units responsible for the torture of prisoners committed suicide. This shows that their fear of disobeying orders was greater than their fear of death.
    And so it was a gloomy, depressing book.
    But I was confused about the title. What was the betrayal? Both Andrei and Brodskaya did their best to save the boy's life. And Anna certainly betrayed no one. What is betrayal anyway? Here is the definition of the word from the dictionary of the Oxford University Press. None of the meanings seem to fit. Perhaps it could be said that the secret police, in the character of Volkov, betrayed the innocent, naive, false expectations people might have had about the true character of socialism and communism.

In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson

    This is a true story, not a novel, about William Dodd, together with his family, who was the ambassador of the United States to Germany between 1933 and 1937. The book is mainly concerned with the period between their arrival in Berlin in July 1933 and the Night of the Long Knives at the end of June, 1934.
    William Dodd was a professor of American history at the University of Chicago. He was already 64 years old in 1933, but a year or two before that he had felt that he needed time off from all his teaching and administrative work in order to finish his great project, a history of the Old South. He was friendly with various politicians in Washington, and so he suggested that it would be nice if they would get him an ambassadorial position in some small, obscure country somewhere where he would have lots of free time to work on his book. When Roosevelt became President in 1933, the position in Berlin had to be filled. No one else wanted it, and so Dodd was asked. And that was the end of his book on the Old South!
    In those days, as ambassador, one was expected to be privately rich, bringing a flock of private servants: butler, cook, chauffeur, and so on. Then you were expected to rent a huge mansion and entertain all the other diplomats with continuous, lavish, privately financed banquets, balls, and other entertainments. But Dodd had no private income. He told Roosevelt that he would have to exist on his salary of $17,000. But he was proud of this. He believed it important to demonstrate the traditional American virtues embodied in the simple life.
    And so the family, the wife Martha (or Mattie), the daughter also named Martha, 24 years old, and Bill Jr., 28, arrived in Berlin. At first they found everything to be wonderful. The ambassador had studied for his doctoral degree many years before, before the First World War, in Leipzig, and he had many fond memories of that time. It was summer. The Tiergarten, that great park in the midst of Berlin, was full of life. The family, and particularly Martha, was enthusiastic about everything new which was happening in Germany. There were reports of some abuses, but everybody seemed happy. Was this the New World, breaking away from the unpleasant Depression which had settled elsewhere?
    Before reading this book I had not really thought very much about what things were like here in Germany in the 1930s. The vague picture I had was that things must have started off relatively peacefully, but then gradually the Nazis tightened their grip ever more, leading to the Gestapo and the Death Camps. So it was interesting to read the book.
    As soon as Hitler gained power, the Nazi's SA, or "Sturmabteilung", which in English is called the "Storm Troopers", began terrorizing the population of Germany. Perhaps they could be compared with the Red Guard of Mao's China. All sorts of young men in ill-fitting brown uniforms marched everywhere, assaulting Jewish people, foreigners, anybody who failed to stop and watch their marches and obediently raise their hands in the "Hitler salute", shouting "Heil Hitler". Then they would retire to swill immense quantities of beer, perhaps afterwards going off in a drunken state in the middle of the night to terrorize further people. The official army of Germany, the Reichswehr, despised them.
    The SS, or Schutzstaffel, were dressed in more elegant black costumes and considered themselves to be the elite corps. Then a further division, the Gestapo, or Geheime Statspolizei, thought to be comparable to the American FBI, was also established. People who were wronged by the SA sometimes took their grievances to the SS, or the Gestapo, and they were often helped by reasonable, civilized people. Such was the strange situation in the Germany of 1933, at least as described in this book, based on first hand accounts, diary entries, letters, of the main characters.
    The Dodd family found a magnificent mansion to rent, adjoining the Tiergarten, for only $150 per month. The deal was that the owners, hugely wealthy Jewish bankers, would live in the attic, while the ambassador would have the lower three floors. The thinking was that they would thus be protected from the Nazis who would be reluctant to invade the American Ambassador's residence.
    Dodd's daughter Martha developed a very lively life in Berlin. She was alive to everything. People said she was beautiful. The most interesting young men wanted to be near her, always visiting the residence. The grandson of the late Kaiser was in love with Martha. As was Boris Vinogradov, a member of the Soviet Embassy and, unknown to Martha, a member of the NKVD. She was in love with him and imagined eloping with him. They went for long drives in the countryside, speaking openly, knowing that there could be no secret microphones spying on their lives. But also Rudolf Diels, the young, civilized, debonair head of the Gestapo was a lover of Martha. She also took long drives with Diels in his car, and he told her of his despair with the developments in Germany, his personal fears.
    Searching through the internet, I see that it is planned to make a movie of the book, starring Tom Hanks as William Dodd, and Natalie Portman as Martha. This is just another example of the absurdity of this modern Hollywood nonsense. How can we compare Tom Hanks with the dignified, principled, unassuming Professor Dodd? And when looking at photos of the real Martha, we see that she was the opposite of the dark, mysterious Natalie Portman. Martha was the innocent, happy, all American girl. And she happily entertained these disillusioned young men in the ambassador's residence, even throughout the night.
    Her father was initially enthusiastic, determined to be open-minded to these new developments in Germany. As an historian, he believed that history was a sequence of rational episodes which could be described in the lecture room to a sober audience. But he gradually had to accept the fact that the new rulers of Germany were irrational, chaotic men, acting on the slightest spur of the moment. It was as if they were 16 year old playground bullies, being alternatively cowed and then carried away in hysterical waves of aggression.
    Things came to a crisis in the Night of the Long Knives when Hitler had many of the leaders of the SA murdered, along with many other people. Rudolf Diels had already been replaced at the Gestapo by the monster, Reinhard Heydrich, the Man with the Iron Heart (according to Hitler). Diels escaped and survived the Nazi period. For both Martha and her father, all delusions about the nature of the Nazis evaporated.
     Dodd spent the remainder of his time in Berlin trying to convince the State Department in Washington about the true nature of the Nazis. But the old establishment, the "Pretty Good Club" of wealthy insiders in Washington, having the good life in their mansions and country estates, playing golf, sailing, hunting, occasionally taking time off to go into their offices, were not interested. They were only interested in the question about whether or not Germany would continue to pay the reparations to their Wall Street banks which were agreed upon in the Versailles treaty after the First World War, and which were the basis of the success of the Nazi movement in Germany. How depressing it is to read of the telegrams which the Pretty Good Club sent to the isolated Dodd in Berlin, pressing him to forget everything else and concentrate on getting the Germans to keep paying money to Wall Street. While there may have been wealthy Jewish Wall Street bankers as well, it seems that they were excluded from the Pretty Good Club of the State Department in Washington.
    It is sad to think that in that period before the Night of the Long Knives it would have been quite possible to have deposed Hitler through the influence of Hindenburg. If the evil influence of the bankers of the USA, England, France, and whatever had not existed, and if the diplomats of the character of Dodd had been given more weight, then the Nazis could easily have fallen. In that summer of 1934 in Berlin, everybody was expecting such a happy outcome.

The Unseen World, by Liz Moore

    The story is about Ada Sibelius, mainly concerned with the time in the 1980s when she is about 12 years old and living at Savin Hill, which is on the waterfront, near Boston. Her father, David, is the director of an artificial intelligence laboratory at the fictitious Boston Institute of Technology, or BIT, not to be confused with the real-life Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT. The two of them live alone, and Ada is home-schooled. That is to say, David teaches her. She spends her days in his laboratory at the BIT, contributing just as much as the various grad students who are also there.
    But David gradually loses his mind to Alzheimer's disease. He has a secret which he is not yet prepared to tell to Ada. Instead he gives her one of those 5 1/4 inch floppy discs of those days which were enclosed in paper envelopes with holes in the middle so that the floppy disc reader could grab the floppy disc and turn it. Although those discs only had a limited capacity of 128K or something, when Ada put it into her computer, she found just a short, seemingly meaningless string of 53 capital letters. On the label stuck on to the envelope of the floppy disc, David had written:
Dear Ada. A puzzle for you. With my love, your father, David Sibelius.
Gradually David became totally incoherent and eventually died. And so Ada made copies of the 53 capital letters and asked all the puzzle solvers at the BIT to try to solve it, but nobody could do it. Time passed away and it became the year 2009. Ada was working for some sort of virtual reality software venture out on the West Coast which was going nowhere, on the verge of bankruptcy. But then she got a call from an old childhood friend who was also working with computers. He had kept the original floppy disc of Ada's puzzle, and he realized that the solution was very simple. It was a one-time pad, where the words David had written on the label were the key to the encryption. All the other puzzle solvers had failed since they did not have the original floppy, and were thus unable to see David's words.
    Thus we learn about David's secret. David was working on a kind of chat-bot, based on some sort of 1980s ideas, apparently using LISP, which, after all, was the great thing at the real-life MIT in those days. His chat-bot was named ELIXER, and it turned out that David's message was to ask ELIXER some particular questions which it was programmed to respond to by printing out David's life story.
    The last couple of chapters take us into the future. It is now the year 2025 or so. Ada has taken over the lab at BIT and she is about to try out for the first time the newest version of virtual reality. She puts some sort of apparatus over her head, and suddenly she is immersed in a fantasy world where all her 5 senses are involved. Smell, touch, taste, as well as just seeing and hearing. But also the sense of balance, the feelings of her muscles, everything. She returns in this dream-like, virtual world to the Savin Hill of the 1980s and talks with David, becoming again the child Ada. I can't imagine how that is supposed to work. But still... Perhaps her mind has become one with the computer. And then in a final chapter it becomes the 2080s, all the Sibeliuses have died off and this artificial intelligence, the future iteration of ELIXER, philosophizes to us about life, the universe, and everything else.
    Well, OK. I recently read an interesting essay about such things. Assuming that it would be possible to up-load people's minds into computers, what would be the consequences? After all, part of the ritual of the Church is that the congregation declares in prayer a belief in eternal life. And so, assuming that in the far future tireless machines will be maintaining the computers where all the minds of the people are stored, then life within the computer would seem to be able to go on forever, or at least for a very long time. And being thus helplessly stored in a computer, it would be possible to subject some souls to eternal pleasure - Heaven - and other souls to eternal torture - Hell. A true manifestation of theological dogma. What a horrible idea!
    Returning to reality, in the story, both David and Ada were using Apple Macintoshes in their 1980s existences. I had an Apple II in the early 1980s which did have 5 1/4 inch floppy discs, but then in 1985 I got my first Macintosh - a "fat Mac" with 512K of memory - which had the newer 3 1/2 inch floppies, enclosed in a hard plastic covering. I thought this was more advanced than the original IBM-PCs with the 5 1/4 inch floppies. But then I don't understand why David gave Ada the larger floppy, which wouldn't have fit into her Macintosh. I suppose this confusion of the author, Liz Moore, must be due to her being one of these modern people who think it is cool to spend huge amounts of money on their fashionable Apple appliances without really being aware of the technicalities. But I gave up on Apple over 20 years ago.

The Spare Room, by Helen Garner

    The author is an Australian, and so the story takes place in Melbourne. Helen, or "Hel", lives alone in her suburban house with the children next door often coming to visit. She writes for a newspaper. She is over 60 and her daughter lives somewhere away. Her friend, Nicola, also well into her 60s, lives in Sydney.
    Nicola is, or at least imagines she is, a kind of hippy, living in a simple little house in the bush, just across from the elegant, expensive villas of Palm Beach on the North Shore of Sydney. Nicola comes from a family which had money, and she imagines that she herself is very elegant. But she has cancer. And so suddenly Helen receives a message that Nicola plans to come to Melbourne to stay with her for three weeks, during which she will be going to a private clinic of alternative medicine.
    The clinic turns out to be a sleazy place with disreputable people. Nicola is subjected to liter-wise injections of vitamin C, steam baths, and what have you. She comes back to the house vomiting, fainting, sweating, all through the night. Helen is exhausted. Not enough sleep. She must replace the soiled sheets on Nicola's bed numbers of times throughout the night. But the worst thing is that Nicola pretends that it is all wonderful. The "doctors" at the clinic are wonderful. Helen is wonderful. The vitamin C is wonderful. She presents the world, and especially Helen, with a tortured, false smile, going on and on, pretending to be wonderfully happy, but really being a tragic mess. This falseness, refusal to accept her condition, wears Helen down to the point where she feels like screaming.
    And so, despite the fact that it was lightly written, it was a depressing read. After all, there are many people with cancer, and I suppose many of them refuse to accept reality. The fact that we all must die.
    But in the end, after an emotional catharsis which clears the air, Helen takes Nicola to a real doctor who Nicola decides that she likes. She resumes a course of "normal" medicine and returns to the apartment of her niece in Sydney. In this more accepting state of mind, Helen, as well as many others, often come to visit so that Nicola lives out her life in harmony, surrounded by loving friends.

Heft, by Liz Moore

    Another story about people who don't fit in. Particularly Arthur Opp, who is tremendously fat. Between 500 and 600 pounds. He lives alone in his house in Brooklyn. In fact he just lives on the main floor since he is too fat to either climb the stairs to the upper floors or go down the stairs to the cellar. Nobody visits him. It has been 10 years since anybody else has entered his house. All this is possible owing to the internet, where he can order things to be delivered at the door. And of course food, tremendous quantities of food are ordered online and delivered to his door. The post is both delivered and taken away from his mailbox at the front door, and he puts bags of garbage out next the the front door. The garbage people are so nice as to climb the steps of his stoop to take the bags away.
    My theory is that these people who are obsessed with food must continuously eat owing to the fact that they feel that something is missing. Is it vitamin C, or D, or whatever, or calcium, or fat, or iron? Or is too much sugar upsetting the whole balance? For example, many people these days seem to think it is normal to drink coca cola, rather than water, whenever they are thirsty. And then some people might overeat when they feel lonely, unloved.
    The former chancellor of Germany, Helmut Kohl, has grown tremendously fat, although I don't think he has yet reached the 500 pound mark. He has already reached 86 years of age, thus proving that extreme obesity does not necessarily lead to a short life. Indeed, the chancellor before him, Helmut Schmidt, lived to be 97 years old. While he was not obese, he smoked like a chimney, going through many packs each day. I think these two examples demonstrate the idea that self-satisfaction is much more important when it comes to longevity than healthy living. And of course Churchill is another example of this.
    But unfortunately the Arthur Opp of the story is not self-satisfied. He is ashamed of himself. His mother has long ago died, but his father lives on as a respected man in England, having no personal contact, yet sending him funds providing a regular income. The father left Arthur's mother owing to the fact that, back then, she was also becoming rather fat.
    Still, Arthur does have one small consolation. Twenty years ago, when he wasn't quite as fat, he was a professor of English in a college in New York. One of the students in his seminar was Charlene, a small, shy, woman whose interest in literature was, at best, basic. Still, Arthur fell in love with Charlene. But then she left and Arthur withdrew from the world, only occasionally exchanging letters with her. Unknown to Arthur, she also has become degenerate, an alcoholic. She has a son, Kel, who, despite his mother, excels at sport, baseball in particular. And so the book becomes a sort of coming of age story of Kel. I very much enjoyed it.

Sophie and the Sybil, by Patricia Duncker

    The author, who, apart from being a novelist is a professor of literature at an English university, tells us that she admires, and has often based her teaching on the novels of George Eliot. She discovered the interesting fact that George Eliot's German publishers were the firm of Duncker & Humbolt, which still exists. Back then in the 19th century there were a couple of Duncker brothers running the business. Patricia Duncker, our modern-day author, thus decided to write a novel in which one of the brothers, Maximilian Duncker, is the central figure. However if you take a look at Maximilian's entry in the Wikipedia, you will see that his character was very different from the playboy which Patricia imagined. Also Maximilian was the eldest son of the founder of the firm, Karl Duncker, yet Patricia Duncker describes him as being the younger of the brothers. And so we should not take this novel seriously as an historical novel.
    Instead Patricia Duncker has decided to have a bit of fun, making a mixture of historical personages and imagined fantasies. The novelist George Eliot comes into all this, and much of the fun involves her last novel, Daniel Deronda. Thus the Sophie of the present book is a version of Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda. And then the "Sybil" is the novelist George Eliot herself.
    I became irritated with the constant use of the term "The Sybil" throughout the book. It seems to me that Sybil is a girls name, whereas Sibyl is the more usual spelling for those female oracles of ancient Greece. Was George Eliot a Sibyl? In any case, Sybil was not included among her given forenames.
    It must be confessed that in my limited knowledge of 19th century literature, I have never read anything by George Eliot. Indeed, in my ignorance, when getting into the book, reading about The Sybil visiting a German spa, being worshiped by all the English tourists, I wondered why they weren't French - until I suddenly realized that I was confusing George Eliot with George Sand. All these women Georges!
    Anyway, both Maximilian and The Sybil worship an ancient philosopher by the name of Lucian. He was apparently a Roman who observed the growth of Christianity and commented on the disaster to which it would lead. But if we try to find Lucian in some more serious source we soon discover that he is just another figment of Patricia Duncker's imagination. Perhaps the character is vaguely based on the philosopher Lucretius, who certainly knew nothing of Christianity since he lived in the B.C. era, although later Christians considered his teachings to be anathema.
    I enjoyed the book, and it has motivated me to read George Eliot's Daniel Deronda.

The Three Body Problem, by Cixin Liu

    Back in the early 1970s, as a graduate student, I attended a summer school, or conference, at the University of Brisbane. Jürgen Moser gave a series of lectures which were concerned with the n-body problem in Newtonian mechanics. I can't remember why I went since I wasn't really interested in such things, but still... I have found a paper of his in the internet which he published back then in 1974. And I remember that he was a most impressive mathematician. But my memories are dominated by the oppressive heat and humidity of Brisbane during that summer. A wife of one of the participants, an older American professor, complained that her husband went through numbers of perspiration-soaked shirts every day. I might be wrong, but I think Moser must have been describing a theorem concerning the measure of the set of quasiperiodic solutions within the set of all possible solutions. This would be the Kolmogorov-Arnold-Moser theorem. This is pure - not applied - mathematics. Not really applicable to the real world. After all, it's obvious that our Solar System is going along in a relatively stable way for millions of years. And anyway, the general theory of relativity has replaced Newtonian mechanics as being the presently favored description of gravity. One can say that - in principle at least - almost all solutions to the n-body problem are chaotic, but in practice, at least when considering "normal" celestial events, the chaos can be ignored.
    The present book was written by a Chinese in China. It starts out by describing the horrible public execution of a professor of physics during the Cultural Revolution. His daughter is a witness to the disgusting business, and she plays a role throughout the book, becoming embittered against Chinese civilization and even humanity as a whole. Therefore it seems that in present-day China, the author, Cixin Liu, does not fear reprisals when criticizing this history of the Communist Party with its monstrous Chairman Mao. Are people in China now free to write what they want? Or will the past repeat itself, with Cixin Liu ending up in a concentration camp to atone for his errors?
    One way or the other, I found the book to be strange, but interesting. Just as I know very little about China, hardly imagining anything to do with it; in the same way, the characters and the story of Cixin Liu's book are almost all Chinese, doing things in China, with the "outside world" playing almost no role. An interesting perspective.
    The story concerns the star system Alpha Centauri, which consists of two stars, plus a third one which is far away from the other two. Thus the motion of the system departs so minutely from true periodicity as to be almost totally ignored. However in Cixin Liu's story, everything there is totally chaotic. Some sort of intelligent life exists on a planet careering about the system, and they discover that the Earth would be a much better place to live, since things here are not so chaotic. (Is this a comment of Cixin Liu about the state of Chinese civilization?)
    So they decide to come over to the Earth and establish themselves in here. As a pleasant change from the usual contemporary science fiction nonsense, the author does not burden us with jumps through wormholes, or hyper-warp drives, or whatever it is. Instead the Alpha Centaurians must take their time, remaining in the real world, and calculating 450 years for the invasion fleet to reach the Earth. Unfortunately though, Cixin Liu did manage to confuse himself with a bit of quantum gobbledygook, imagining sending an "intelligent" proton (whatever that is supposed to be) to Earth at near the speed of light, then having it quantumly "entangled" with another proton which they retain back in Alpha Centauri. Thus (???) this other proton, being also intelligent, can instantly report on events on Earth. Such nonsense is common amongst people who do not understand the basics of the theory of relativity. In fact it is the equivalent of being able to travel into the past, something which is impossible on purely logical grounds.
    The Alpha Centaurians have a somewhat more advanced understanding of technical and scientific matters than we do, but they fear that in the intervening 450 years we might advance sufficiently in order to be able to fend off their challenge. And thus they develop a strategy to hinder such possible progress in human development. While communicating via radio signals with the Earth, they manage to convince many people that they are all-knowing gods who are there to punish humanity for its evil ways. Instead of pursuing science, humanity should return to the simple, good life of the past. Do away with polluting machines. Find alternative forms of energy. And if humanity refuses to obey these commands, then the gods will punish the Earth with climate change!
    Thus we see that, happily, there do exist some Chinese - exemplified by Cixin Liu - with a very good sense of humor!
    I see that he has written a whole series of further books concerned with the invasion of the Alpha Centarians, but this is enough for me.

Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot

    The story is much too complicated to put into a nutshell, and so, instead, a summary can be found in the Wikipedia. This is the first time I have read anything by George Eliot. She certainly had a dense, erudite style of writing, full of obscure words. And yet it was an interesting story, perhaps relevant to some things in the world today.
    On the one hand we have the heroine, Gwendolen, a complex character, full of herself, beautiful, a symbol of the degeneration of Western Civilization, at least as it was perceived back then in Victorian England. On the other we have Daniel Deronda and his beloved wife Mirah, both perfect specimens of the purity of the Jewish "race". At the end of the book they travel away to the "East" to further the cause of goodness, far from Gwendolen and her dead, rich, evil husband, Henleigh Grandcourt.
    Is it sensible to follow the Nazi way of thinking and consider Jewishness as a racial characteristic? And is the modern nation of Israel something which is based purely on the Jewish race? Well why not? After all, many other nations define themselves in racial terms. The Japanese certainly consider themselves to be a pure race, set apart from the rest of the world, closed to the immigration of foreign, racially impure people. And I am sure that many English people also think of the English race as being uniquely civilized, leading the world in all that is good. But since I am a migrant, having lived for long periods of my life in three different countries on three different continents, I am not in favor of such racial thinking. And thus it seems to me that the arguments of Shlomo Sand not only make sense, but they are more appealing than those other, racial arguments.
    George Eliot was writing at a time when all the unhappy episodes of the 20th century were far away. Apparently she - an agnostic in religious matters - decided to learn the Hebrew language as an intellectual challenge. Her teacher, Emanuel Deutsch, was a Hebrew scholar at the British Museum. She became fascinated by his ideas about Judaism and Zionism. All of this twenty years before Theodor Herzl. And as with many of those Hollywood types: Madonna, Mick Jagger, Brittany Spears, Paris Hilton, and so on, she dabbled in the the Kabbalah, esoteric Judaism, the transmigration of souls and what have you.
    George Eliot deals with Judaism by dividing it into two opposite groups, the good and the evil. For her, the evil Jew is the pawnbroker, the rich banker, which she dismisses without much thought. But surely it is part of the tragedy that during medieval times, when Christianity forbid the practice of taking interest on loans, it fell to the Jews to become the money lenders. And often they were forbidden from taking on other professions. Then she considers the poor Jew, living in a slum, full of religion, to be the essence of goodness.
    What a distortion of reality! In the 19th century, and especially in the 20th, people of Jewish ancestry who were neither money lenders, nor poor, nor particularly religious, were often the leaders of human achievement. So many Nobel prizes in the sciences. Great musicians, mathematicians.
    But despite this, I enjoyed the book. Gwendolen was such an interesting, complicated character; Grandcourt a wonderful monster. In comparison, Deronda and Mirah were boringly one dimensional. And George Eliot's philosophising, despite being irritatingly erudite, was often amusing.

Middlemarch, by George Eliot

    Again, a complicated story with numbers of different subplots and many different characters. The reason for this is that those 19th century authors wrote their voluminous books in serial form - in this case in eight shorter episodes - rather like these modern-day television series - which 19th century readers would have had to buy, one after the other, mirroring the business model of the modern-day Amazon Prime video streaming system. But happily for the modern reader, we can download all of the episodes of those 19th century novels in one go for free from Project Gutenberg, or else we can borrow a thick volume from the library where everything is again printed together as if it were one complete novel. The disjointedness meant that it took me some time to get into the story, but eventually the different subplots do come together to give us a satisfying ending.
    As before it would be nonsense to try to describe the plot in a nutshell. I found the story to be more satisfying than that of Daniel Deronda. To be honest though, I'm writing this review a month or two after finishing the book, and having read other things, together with the complexity of the story, meant that I had forgotten much of the detail. A quick look at the Wikipedia page for Middlemarch brought everything back into my mind. I find it difficult to imagine that a young woman of the character of Dorothea could commit herself so to the ridiculous Casaubon. But who knows? She becomes a saint-like figure of religious obsession, thus showing that anything is possible in the minds of these young women. And then we have the marriage of Rosamond to Lydgate, demonstrating a different distortion of the marriage state. Perhaps the theme of the book is how to get entangled in a bad marriage. And the sub-theme is how to make a mess of your death by writing a will which makes everybody hate your memory.
    All of this is quaintly interesting, made more so by George Eliot's learned and amusing observations on life.

Galapagos, by Kurt Vonnegut

    This one was written towards the end of Kurt Vonnegut's life. Perhaps he was thinking about what the world might really be like without him, not only now when his books can be found everywhere but far into the future. A million years in the future.
    I find it strange to think so far. Back in the 1950s and 60s it seemed that humanity would soon blow itself up with atomic bombs so that the earth could get back to going on with its existence without us. But contrary to expectation, here we are, a couple of decades further on, and people still haven't blown themselves up. So how long will humanity continue to exist in its present form?
    My time on the earth will certainly be finished within the next 20 or 30 years. Thus in a certain sense, humanity, and everything else, will have ceased to exist for me. And a similar thought applies to everybody else as well. Nevertheless, going in the opposite direction, into the past, it seems that the earth existed before my birth. This fact can be proved, for example by looking at old photographs. We see that the earth existed in a black and white, rather blurry, colorless form. Old movies show time juddering along. Still, old paintings exist which, when all the dust and grime is washed away, prove that some aspects of the previous earth were also colorful.
    I've given a lot of thought to all this, and it seems to me that the basic essence of things doesn't change with time. There was no big bang, and the universe will not dissipate into nothingness far in the future. On the other hand, humanity does change with time. Some people subscribe to the view that humanity should become more vegetable-like, discarding the large brains it is blessed with in order to defer as far as possible the time when humanity becomes extinct. This feeling is encapsulated in the phrase "save the earth". An absurd concept. Perhaps the motivation is the fear of individual death being transformed into a hope for the everlasting and eternal life of humanity as a species.
    The plot of the present novel is, as is typical of Kurt Vonnegut, bizarre. Women fall ill with a sickness which renders them unable to reproduce. This sickness applies everywhere on earth except on the Galapagos Islands and the waters immediately surrounding them. Thus the process of natural selection alters humanity. We become a new species of whale with a greatly reduced brain size. No hands to make things. Any of the female whale creatures which happens to swim away from the Galapagos, or go onto land not in the Galapagos, immediately becomes sick and infertile.
    Well, OK. But I can't imagine how this sickness is supposed to work. And anyway, I like the fact that humanity is having a wild time on this earth, living it up, inventing all sorts of new things, blasting out into space, connecting everything with glass fibers, solving great problems in mathematics.
    How will it all end? Who knows. The idea that humanity, in its present form, will still exist, say in 10,000 years from now, seems to me to be difficult to imagine. I would bet against it. And a million years in the future? Despite everything people may do, the planet earth will continue along nicely for the next million years. Only after thousands of further millions of years will the sun gradually expand, eventually engulfing the earth and transforming its particles into the building blocks of new worlds in the future.

The Mill on the Floss, by George Eliot

    This was a more coherent story than most of those other episodic, serialized Victorian novels. It seems that there is much of George Eliot's real life in this novel. The author can be thought of as the heroine, Maggie Tulliver, and Tom as her real-life brother Isaac. But the real-life father of Mary Ann Evans (alias George Eliot) did not really have the evil attributes of the father Tulliver of the book.
    Again, this was a voluminous novel. For me it was spoiled by the ridiculously melodramatic ending. Otherwise it was a moving description of the false expectations women were subjected to in Victorian England.

The Indian Clerk, by David Leavit

    In 1913 the English mathematican G. H. Hardy received a letter from Ramanujan, the obscure Indian clerk of Madras, containing a list of complicated formulas, some of which were known, but others quite new. After studying the letter with his collaborator, John Littlewood, Hardy decided to invite Ramanujan to come to England and work with him at Trinity College, Cambridge. Many books have been written about this collaboration; the present book is an historical novel, imagining what those characters were feeling during those times.
    Hardy was, apparently, homosexual, as is the author, David Leavit. And so the book dwells especially on this theme, imagining various torrid scenes with Hardy playing either the passive or the active role. Nobody imagines that either Ramanujan or Littlewood were homosexual. Thus their possible loves and affairs assume only a secondary stature, as does the pure mathematics which is really at the center of this whole drama.
    It seems that Hardy's ambition was to prove the Riemann Hypothesis, and he hoped that his collaboration with Ramanujan might lead to a proof. Despite this, now, 100 years later, the hypothesis is still open.
    When walking about in Cambridge we are impressed with the beauty of the ancient architecture, and Trinity College seems to stand out. One wonders what it must be like to actually live in the place. I am sure that now it would be a wonderful experience. From an intellectual point of view, Trinity College has always been simply magnificent. Look at the list of Nobel Prize, or Fields Medal winners. But what was it like 100 years ago when women were excluded and most of the inhabitants were rich, brash Englishmen?
    Perhaps my thoughts here are being influenced by the fact that the book places such emphasis on homosexuality. After all, married men could not be resident. Back in those days young men went to boarding school and then on to university. Girls and then women were excluded. Ramanujan had left his child bride back in India in the (fearsome, according to the book) care of his mother. Littlewood - again according to the book - went out by train on the weekends to the tip of Cornwall where he stayed with the more or less estranged wife of a London doctor, secretly having a child with her, but without the "affair" becoming closer. All three of these characters, as well as all the other "dons" in residence at Trinity, spent their days unencumbered by the daily distractions of home and family. If the book is to be believed, and surely David Leavit has examined in detail all of the available private correspondence of these people (Hardy, John Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and what have you), then it would seem that their excess energies were expended in outbursts of pointless verbosity. While they may have achieved greatness, their private lives were often full of unhappiness.

Old Filth, by Jane Gardam

    This is a book for English readers, who will undoubtedly shed a tear or two for the main character. The unusual title is not meant to imply that he is filthy. Instead the word "Filth" stands for the expression, "Failed in London, try Hong Kong". (Although the "k" of "Kong" is missing in this acronym.) According to the story, the expression should be applied to English lawyers.
    The main character is not a particularly pleasant person. He was a lawyer in the British colony of Hong Kong, amassing a large fortune as some of these lawyers do, representing the interests of moneyed clients. But then he switched sides, becoming a judge. This brings a certain degree of respect, but the monetary rewards are much reduced.
    He is now in his 80s, having retired years ago to the peaceful countryside of the south of England. His wife has died and he is becoming somewhat confused. There were no children, so he is alone, hoping that his money and his reputation will keep things going until the end. We encounter him searching for something: companionship? truth? It is all a bit sad.
    And so gradually we learn about his childhood. He was born in Malaya, his mother died, his father wanted nothing to do with him. After five years living with the local villagers, he was sent alone to England to two Aunts who take the money the father has sent, sending him to the cheapest possible foster home they can find, in the depths of Wales, where he, as well as another boy and two other girls are horribly mistreated. During an extreme episode where the foster mother has worked herself into an hysterical state, tormenting the poor, defenseless children, the child, the Young Filth, pushes her down the stairs where she expires in her own evil. Good riddance!
    He has relegated this memory to some closed chamber in his mind where it has secretly governed his life. Now, meeting the long-lost fellow childhood sufferers, this memory is released, and so in the end Old Filth buys himself a first-class airline ticket from Heathrow to the somewhere in the Far East where he emerges, smells the fragrant tropical air, and then expires.
    Are these tales of British colonial nostalgia meant for the rest of us? For some of those living in some of those colonies, perhaps not.

Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture, by Apostolos Doxiadis

    In contrast to most of these other novels about mathematics, the author, Apostolos Doxiadis, has studied mathematics and thus knows what he is talking about. The story is that the narrator is living in Greece as a young boy in the 1950s, and he is curious about his uncle who is living as a kind of recluse, hated by his father and Petros' other brother who both run the family business, supporting Uncle Petros. As the story develops we learn that the imaginary Petros was a mathematician, visiting and working with Hardy, Littlewood, and Ramanujan in Cambridge back then in the early 1900s, eventually becoming a professor in Munich. But then he becomes obsessed with Goldbach's Conjecture. That, along with the Riemann Hypothesis is still unsolved now, in the year 2016.
    Goldbach's conjecture is that every even whole number greater than 2 is the sum of two prime numbers. So this is number theory. Very complicated! For hundreds of years many people have thought about numbers, producing more and more subtle results. Goldbach's "weak" conjecture has recently been proven in the year 2013, ending a 250 year struggle. The weak conjecture is that every odd whole number greater than 5 can be written as the sum of three prime numbers.
    But to return to the story of the book, the young narrator tells Uncle Petros that he also wants to become a mathematician. So Petros says that he will give him a test to see if he has the potential for such a career. Namely he describes the Goldbach Conjecture and says that if the boy can solve it during the summer holidays without consulting any books, then he might become a mathematician. Of course this is very unfair. So the nephew studies mathematics just to spite Uncle Petros.
    The real story though is about Petros. He works away in secret, afraid that somebody else might steal his ideas. This is the reason he refuses to publish some of his partial results which of themselves would have been interesting for other mathematicians. On a visit to Cambridge he talks to Hardy about these results and is astonished to learn that somebody else has also found them years ago and published them. Thus he publishes nothing, and so loses his position at Munich. In the end he is defeated.
    Is this what pure mathematics is all about? I think most mathematicians are happy to publish lots of obscure little papers in the hope of securing a tenured position. Thus it is all the more remarkable, even wonderful, that somebody of the stature of Andrew Wiles was able to prove the even more famous and seemingly intractable Fermat's Last Theorem.