Werner-Otto von Hentig:
Reporter Who Knew Too Much
Preceding the End of the World
The Gap of Time
Shylock is my Name
at the Homesick Restaurant
William H. Bates,
Eyesight Without Glasses
Music, in a
Fates and Furies
The Sheltering Sky
The Noise of Time
Yuval Noah Harari:
Sapiens: A Brief History of
The Last of the
The Walworth Beauty
The Girl Friend
Man Who Shot Siegfried Sassoon
in the Dark
Ballad of a Small Player
The Siege of
I ordered this antiquarian book
which was published in the year 1928 through amazon.com, and when it came I
was somewhat surprised to find that it was printed using the traditional
fraktur style. Thus, for fun, I will continue here with
a fraktur font.
As I think I have written here ſomewhere before, I uſe
the Linux operating ſyſtem, and for people who can't be bothered with
learning the ins and outs of html, the Composer program which is part of
the SeaMonkey browſer makes it eaſy for me to just keep adding theſe
little texts into my ſite. But although there ſeem to be huge numbers of
poſſible fonts to choſe from, unfortunately, there iſn't any true fraktur
font liſted within the program. Clicking about the internet, I found that
did offer ſomething ſeſnible, together with ſome inſtructions on how to
embed it in a webpage. But it didn't work. Then I found that Google alſo
offers lots of fonts at https://fonts.google.com/,
including the UnifrakturMaguntia font which I am uſing here. They alſo
gave ſome html code (which I hardly underſtand; looking at the html code,
it ſeems the SeaMonkey Composer ſometimes makes a real meſſ of things.
I'll ſee what I can do to clear it up!) for embedding the font in a text,
and it ſeems to work. But then, as is always the caſe with theſe computer
things, for ſome reaſon one detail didn't ſeem to work. Namely, in
fraktur, if you have a ſmall "s" which iſn't at the end of a word, then it
ſhould be written as a "long-s", that is: "ſ". One might hope that the
compoſer program would be ſmart enough to follow this rule by itſelf, but
ſuch a hope would be miſplaced. Html ſimply ſets the letters, one after
another as they come up in the file. Thus ſome new character is uſed for
typing the long-s. It is "ſ", which looks a lot like
the uſual "f", but if you look very cloſely you will
ſee that the right-hand bit of the croſſ-bar of the f
is miſſing. All this was new to me. I've never ſeen this character before.
Anyway, for ſome ſtrange reaſon or another, the Google link to the
UnifrakturMaguntia font produced ſomething which did not render the long-s
properly. But the link liſted above does work. (To be frank, even when
examining this fraktur ſtuff with a magnifying glaſſ (is that correct?), I
can't ſee the difference between the long-s and the f. Is there a
Perhaps if you have read this little text ſo far you
may underſtand that I found it to be tiring to read a whole book ſet in
fraktur. On the other hand, deſpite the fact that the book is almoſt 100
years old, the pages are a nice milky color and the printing remains
clear. The nicely woven binding ſhows no ſign of becoming dry or cracked.
One is tranſported to an earlier time, thinking of books publiſhed
hundreds of years ago; for example thoſe old Bibles from the renaiſſance
period. Fraktur ſeems to have been eſpecially common in German ſpeaking
lands. Old texts in French or Engliſh, ſay from the baroque period, are
uſually printed in a more modern, often very eaſily readable font.
But to return to the book itſelf... and to
unburden the reader by returning to a "normal" font, I wrote about this book
years ago when reviewing another book
concerned with the Silk Road. Roland, the son of the author, and his wife
were practically the driving force behind our reading group. Unfortunately
they are no more, and things haven't been the same since. Roland told me
about his father and he lent me a copy of this book which had been printed
in an earlier edition. I think it was first published in 1917, during the
Great War. The printing was not in fraktur, instead it was a "normal" modern
font. I photocopied it and loosely bound the sheets together, but then some
years ago I lent that photocopy to somebody else who hasn't returned it. And
so then, on a whim, a few days ago I looked to see if a copy might be
available through amazon.
The title of the book might be translated as: "Into the
closed (or perhaps the secret) land". And the subtitle is: "Ein Kampf mit
Mensch und Meile" - or "A battle with men and miles". Von
Hentig was a diplomat, having been assigned to the German Embassies
first in Peking, and then Istanbul. With the outbreak of war in 1914, he
returned to Germany to fight on the Eastern Front, but then he was ordered
to Berlin to organize an expedition to Afghanistan. This led to an
extraordinary trek which in the end took him around the world. But rather
than repeat myself here, I refer to what I wrote 10 years ago. I think it's
a shame that the book has never been translated into English.
This book is about Dorothy
Kilgallen, the reporter, gossip columnist, TV game show personality
and socialite of the 1950s and early 1960s. From 1945 until 1963 she, along
with her husband, Richard Kollmar, every morning except Sundays, hosted a
radio program on the New York channel WOR called "Breakfast with Dorothy and
Dick". There must be many thousands of episodes to choose from. For example
is one linkable episode which I was able to find.
Such twaddle! Imagine having to get up each morning for
18 years and continue to spew out such nonsense for breakfast. And then
Kilgallen spent her evenings at night clubs, Broadway plays, fashionable
restaurants, picking up the newest gossip for her daily newspaper column. On
Sundays she appeared in the TV program "What's My Line?". So I suppose she
actually enjoyed the life. Her husband, Dick, apparently did not, for he
soon took to drink and womanizing. Despite this he had to continue on with
the live breakfast show, pretending to be something he was not, day in, day
out, for week after week, month after month, year after year.
But that isn't really the theme of this book. Kilgallen
was found on the morning of November 8th, 1965 in her bed, dead. An autopsy
established that she had alcohol, together with various drugs, sleeping
pills and what have you, in her blood. Was it suicide? Was it an accident -
mistakenly taking too many of the sleeping pills she habitually took every
night, together with a drink or two? Or was it murder?
The author convincingly discounts the first two
possibilities. He also shows that the obvious candidate as murderer, Dick,
also couldn't really have done it.
Instead, he concentrates on the fact that Kilgallen was
interested in courtroom murder trials, having covered numbers of them for
her newspaper, often using her celebrity status to obtain inside
information. Of course we have the greatest murder mystery of them all:
Kennedy - Oswald - and then Jack Ruby. Oswald had been denied a trial owing
to the fact that Ruby killed him, but then Dorothy Kilgallen had the
opportunity to follow the Ruby trial, becoming herself the center of
attention and thus learning things which were not available to the other
reporters who were present. Unlike other reporters who are afraid to go into
things deeply for fear of losing their jobs, Kilgallen tried to learn all
she could about the Kennedy assassination, assembling a large volume of
notes, documents, interviews. Thus she must have learned much more than
later-day investigators, frustrated by the fact that documents have
disappeared, witnesses have died, or themselves been killed.
Her very extensive dossier on the Kennedy assassination
was never found. Apparently it disappeared on the night she was murdered.
The author of the present book, Mark Shaw, propounds the theory that the
Mafia was the exclusive perpetrator of the whole business. Joe Kennedy, the
father of Jack and Bobby, was himself a center of organized crime in the
1930s. In order to get Jack elected to the presidency in 1960, he applied to
his Mafia friends to fix the elections in Illinois and Ohio, with the
promise in return that under Jack's presidency, politics would give them a
free pass to do whatever they liked. But Joe double-crossed the Mafia! He
determined that Bobby become Attorney General and that he should go after
organized crime. Thus Bobby was shocked about the fact that Jack was killed
rather than he himself. The Mafia, and in particular Carlos
Marcello, knew that killing Bobby would not be enough. If Jack
remained president then he would go after them with renewed force. Thus
killing Jack brought the Mafia-friendly Lyndon Johnson into the White House,
and Bobby withdrew into guilt-driven inaction. Only after he won the
California primary in 1968 did he become a danger again to be killed.
According to the book, Dorothy Kilgallen was getting too near the truth,
traveling to New Orleans, finding things out. And so Carlos Marcello had her
eliminated. The agent of Marcello, or perhaps of some of his collegues (Sam
Roselli, or whoever it was), according to the author, must have been
the young Ron Pataky who had ingratiated himself with Dorothy Kilgallen.
Well, OK. All of this seems to me to be quite plausible.
But on the other hand, I can't imagine that Carlos Marcello could have
gotten the whole thing together on his own. There are just too many details
- for example as explained in the book "JFK
and the Unspeakable" - which would surely have been beyond the
capabilities of the Mafia. One way or another, it is clear that Dorothy
Kilgallen got herself into more hot water than she had bargained with.
by Margaret Atwood
The story is a retelling of
Shakespeare's (or whoever was writing using that nom de plume) "The
Tempest", in a modern and not quite so fantastical setting. Felix is
the director of a Shakespearean theater company in a Canadian city. He
delegates much of the boring, day to day details to his assistant, Tony.
Felix is creative, avant-garde. His productions often verge on the bizarre,
if not the absurd. And so the more calm, scheming Tony organizes a coup,
deposing Felix and taking over the directorship himself.
Felix withdraws to a primitive shack somewhere in the
wastes of Canada and smolders, thinking of revenge. The years pass. Felix
takes on the project of developing a theater group in a prison somewhere in
the neighborhood, again based on Shakespearean plays. After a couple of
years the group becomes well established, and Felix' plan for revenge
matures, based on The Tempest, a play which has much to do with prisons.
Tony and a few of his cronies have become established
figures in Canadian politics, with ministerial rang. They have been invited
to attend this new play put on in the prison. And so the story becomes -
more or less - the story of Shakespeare's Tempest, with the prison
substituted for the island. It is all a bit far-fetched and implausible, but
of course the play is too. As with Prospero, Felix is restored to the
directorship of the theater company, and Tony - or Antonio - is disgraced.
Over the years I have accumulated a leather-bound volume
of the complete works of Shakespeare from the Oxford University Press,
printed in small, closely spaced type, and also a set of eight generous
volumes of the Shakespeare plays, printed comfortably on pleasantly thick
paper by the Folio Society. But despite this, I continue to find it to be a
tedious exercise to read through a play. Much is missing from the story when
we are confronted with dialogue alone, to be read in solitude. Where are the
emotions of the actors. The dramatic scenes?
We did get a DVD of the Tempest some years ago. An
eccentric production. A woman, Helen Mirren, plays the part of Prospero. So
I watched it again. Some of the dialogue in this production - which may have
been superfluous - was shortened in comparison with the official version.
Still, more so than when first watching the film, I was interested in the
details and how they corresponded with Margaret Atwood's story.
We have a couple of further Shakespeare DVDs, but
certainly not the whole collection. Unfortunately the German version of
Netflix offers no Shakespeare at all, but Amazon Prime Video does have a
few, so that's something to look forward to when at loose ends.
Margaret Atwood's Tempest is part of The
Hogarth Shakespeare Project, in which a number of well-known authors
write novels on the themes of different Shakespeare plays. I'm looking
forward to reading some of these in the future.
This is a very short novel which can
be read in a single sitting. The author is Mexican, and this is a
translation into English. It is a dream-like story. Short, poetic sentences.
The translator has tried to emulate the original Spanish, and in an
Afterword she describes the style of the original. Inventive words,
colloquial phrases. As an example of her translation, when saying that
somebody is going away, or leaving, she says that they "verse". The noun has
suddenly become a verb. A strange idea, apparently original to the
The story is about a young woman leaving her Mexican
village in order to find her brother who has crossed the border into the
United States and seems to have disappeared. She needs the help of the local
drug barons, then crosses the Rio Grande on an inner tube. She and her
helper are held up at gunpoint by a vigilante - a Texan, or New Mexican
farmer, or whatever - who subscribes to the theories of the newly elected
American President, Donald Trump. She escapes with a minor bullet wound,
walking over a mountain to her next helper. But where is the brother?
Eventually she finds him, enlisted under a false name in the U.S. Army,
between one tour or another in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or wherever they are,
making a mess of those places. (Can we really hope that Donald Trump will be
able to put an end to all of these messes?) At the end she descends into
some sort of cellar filled with further aliens, receiving false papers in
this hostile land.
A wonderful retelling of
Shakespeare's Winter Tale. The author, Jeanette Winterson tells us that she
was an orphan as a child, and so the story meant much to her. Leontes, King
of Sicily becomes Leo, a rich, egoistic, London financier and property
tycoon. Hermine, Loentes wife becomes MiMi, a French chanson singer whom Leo
met in Paris and married, loving her, but thinking of her as his possession.
Perdita, the daughter remains Perdita. Polixenes, King of Bohemia, becomes
Xenes, the childhood homosexual friend of Leo, later wealthy business
associate, who escapes to America - the deep South - after the blowup with
Leo. And so on.
Although the novel certainly takes much more time to read
than the play, still it is a fast-paced, enjoyable book. Leo's incredible
jealousy and horrible behavior tax our imagination. Perdita is the lovely,
young, but modern maiden. And all the other characters come up too, leading
us to Shakespeare's happy ending.
This is a retelling of The Merchant
of Venice. Of course the editors at the Hogarth Press must have been careful
to choose an author of Jewish background. Anyone else taking on such a
delicate project would certainly be accused of being a Nazi, or worse.
Jacobson avoids the unpleasant, politically incorrect aspects of
Shakespeare's (or whoever it was) play. Instead he introduces Shylock as a
kind of ghost, met in a London cemetery by the pseudo-Shylock, a character
with the Eastern European name of Simon Strulovitch. Shylock and Strulovitch
have long philosophical talks about the nature of Judaism and its
superiority in comparison with other religions, especially Christendom, and
especially everything pertaining to Germany. As in Shakespeare's play,
Shylock laments the fate of his daughter Jessica, who ran off with a
non-Jew. And in just the same way, Strolovitch's daughter Beatrice is in the
process of running off with a football player in England's 4th or 5th, or
something regional league who, as a spontaneous gesture, after kicking the
first goal he had ever kicked in his life, in a fit of unthinking, or
unknowing, euphoria, raised his arm in what was interpreted in the English
press as a Nazi salute. Strolovitch was horrified in the same way that the
renaissance Shylock was horrified about what had become of his Jessica.
There are further characters mimicking those in The
Merchant of Venice. In fact Beatrice and her footballer travel off to
modern-day Venice. Antonio becomes d'Anton, a rich, homosexual connoisseur
who wishes to help the dull-witted footballer. Shylock spies in Beatrice's
computer, finding evidence that she had slept with the footballer before her
16th birthday, which is a crime in England.
Through many long passages in the book we are treated to
a discussion of the nature of the Jew. Strolovitch rejects much of what
Shylock says. He refuses to take religion seriously. Is Judaism a tribal
phenomenon? An ethnicity? In theory he wants nothing to do with these
things. But he draws the line at his daughter marrying a non-Jew. This is
the one thing which is holy, as it was for Shylock.
So the threat is that Strolovitch, a respecter of law,
will bring down the weight of the law on the footballer, d'Anton, and all
their friends, accusing them of pedophilia, procurement, and what have you.
Strolovitch's condition is that the footballer return with Beatrice and
submit himself to circumcision, as proof of his sincerity in embracing all
things Jewish. But in a letter, d'Anton offers himself for this ceremony in
the event that the loving pair fail to materalize.
After long discussions of the role of circumcision as the
defining element of Judaism, the original injury leading to Jewish anger, we
have a kind of garden-party representing the trial, after which d'Anton is
driven with bowed head to the medical clinic, specializing in the
circumcision of wealthy men. I suppose I shouldn't reveal the final twist to
the story. But I found this whole circumcision business to be somewhat less
than plausible. After all, it is not exclusive to Jewish men. Islamic men
are also circumcised,
as are the vast majority of men in the United States. It is generally done
for reasons of hygiene, and it has been shown that the transmission of
various diseases is less likely with circumcised men in comparison with
those which are not circumcised.
Some modern scholars claim that the character Shylock in
Shakespeare's play is not really evil. He has a number of speeches appealing
to our sympathy. Of course the audience in London in the early 1600s had no
direct experience of Jewish people. Edward the first expelled them in the
year 1290, and it was only in 1657 that Oliver Cromwell rescinded the order.
Thus Shylock represented not the murderer of Christ, or whatever else those
anti-Semites can think of to justify their thoughts. Surely for
Shakespeare's audience, Shylock was simply the money lender, the banker, the
A story could be made in which the modern-day CEO of
Goldman-Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, someone who makes much of his Jewish
background, is Shylock, who is extracting his pound of flesh from the simple
people of Greece. But of course that would be politically unacceptable, even
if it were to be pointed out that the circle of rapacious bankers includes
many who do not belong to the Jewish religion, or tribe, or whatever. For
example Blankfein's predecessor, Henry Paulson, the man who really organized
the destruction of Greece and the trillions of bail-out money under George
W. Bush, is not Jewish.
I enjoyed this one. A retelling of The Taming of
the Shrew. But I don't think I have ever read all the way through that
play. Shakespeare editions usually have a short synopsis of the plot, dates
of the first known performance, listing of the sources the author
("Shakespeare") must have used, and so on, at the beginning. But just
thinking about the plot put me off. Marrying a poor woman to a potentially
violent, overbearing man. This may have been a subject of much humor for
Elizabethan Londoners, as it would be for contemporary Taliban, Isis, some
Hindus, Saudi Arabians, and what have you, but I don't think it is at all
funny. Modern critics dismiss the misogyny as being something else,
meaningless, non-existent, thus encouraging us to join in the laughter.
This book only vaguely relates to the play. It becomes a
normal love story which has probably been written hundreds of times over the
years with only slight variations of the details. But still, Anne Tyler
writes well, and I was often laughing out loud, even to the point of
bringing myself to tears.
Kate's father is not a Duke, or King, or Lord, as all
those Shakespearean characters boringly tend to be. Instead he is a
microbiologist at Johns Hopkins University, where he is studying autoimmune
diseases. He has developed an obscure theory to explain them, deviating from
the usual approach. I would have been interested, but Anne Tyler does not go
into detail here. As is often the case in science, he is ostracized from the
Faculty, being moved to a building off-campus with very restricted funds for
research assistants, and what have you. His one assistant is Pyotr, an
awkward Eastern European whose three-year visa for working in the United
States is about to expire. For the father this will be a disaster. All his
work will be for nothing. If only Kate would marry Pyotr, thus allowing him
extended time in the country and eventually a Green Card...
But what does poor Kate think about all this? Obviously
she is disgusted. Her father, Professor Battista, does not intend that she
should actually sleep with Pytor. Heaven forbid! He can just move into a
spare room of the house and pretend to become more intimate if the snoops
from the Department of Immigration start sniffing about the place.
Eventually both we, and Kate, warm to the awkward Pyotr,
they marry in chaos, and in an afterword the author tells us a little story
about their child being bored on the trip to a foreign country, being
allowed to play endless computer games on his smartphone while his father
and grandfather are awarded a prize. Presumably the Nobel Prize.
This was a sad book, a contrast to
the happy "Vinegar Girl". The author wrote it more at the beginning of her
career, back in 1982. We examine the Tulls, a family living in Baltimore.
The mother's name is Pearl. I forget the dates, but she must have grown up
in the 1920s, putting off marrying too long, then accepting a man she didn't
love. They had three children: Cody is the oldest, then Ezra, and the girl
Jenny. Just having names like this would drive anybody crazy.
The husband, Beck, after 10 years of marriage has had
enough and disappears, occasionally sending letters from various places,
containing 50 dollars. Pearl refuses to believe it and pretends to the world
and to her children for year after year that he is just temporarily away on
business. It is unmentionable. A skeleton in the closet. Pearl takes on a
job at the cash register of the local store, pretending to the world that
she is superior to this.
And so the children grow up, fatherless; perhaps a not
uncommon experience in the modern world. The mother, Pearl, is often angry,
even violently so, hitting the children. But Ezra is her favorite, always
reasonable, considerate. This infuriates Cody who develops a simmering anger
towards Ezra. He does terrible things to Ezra, even when they become grown
up. Jenny distances herself from all these family problems, quickly marrying
one unsuitable man after another.
For anybody living in a halfway "normal" and happy
family, reading this book provides a pleasant antidote to any feelings that
things are not going along as well as they should.
Many years ago I read Aldous
Huxley's "The Art of Seeing". He had become nearly blind, and so in order to
preserve his vision he had sought medical advice in 1939 by a follower of
Dr. Bates (who had died in 1931). He described various exercises for the
eyes: gently holding the hands over the eyes to relax them, "bathing" the
eyes in the full sunlight of Southern California. Somehow I seem to have
lost my copy of Huxley's book, but looking things up in the internet I found
that Bates' original book has been republished in a paperback edition,
describing the Bates
Method. So I ordered it.
The book tells us that we must simply discard our
glasses. Those who fail to take this decisive step will never improve their
vision. The idea is that all problems with vision stem from the the fact
that we are not relaxed. The key to perfect vision is perfect relaxation.
The reason for this, according to Bates, is that the lens of the eye is
static, only providing a fixed focus. The mechanism for changing the focal
point is the muscles which surround the eyeball, contracting to make the eye
more elliptical for near vision, or relaxing, allowing they eye to become
more spherical for far vision.
Well, O.K. This is certainly something I had never
thought about. But my mind is always open for the contemplation of unusual
thoughts. Perhaps it is true. An interesting idea. Clicking about in the
internet, I find that no serious present-day specialist takes Bates' theory
seriously. So I assume that, contrary to what Bates writes, modern
researchers have actually measured the deformation of the lens when the eye
changes focus. Still, I can believe that those smooth muscles which surround
the eye do have some function or other, and that when the eye is under
strain, they produce deformations which affect vision.
In the book, Bates goes on and on about one case after
another of people whose vision he has miraculously and instantaneously
corrected. A medical doctor, or a university professor, who has been wearing
glasses for 40 years and whose vision is 10/200 or something, shortsighted
to the point of blindness, astigmatic, blind in one eye due to cataracts,
visits Dr. Bates in his clinic. Bates tells his illustrious but visually
crippled patient that the problem is a matter of relaxation. The patient
covers his eyes with his hands, imagines what it would be like to have
perfect vision, then opens his eyes and is astonished to discover that he
has been cured! Vision is perfect. He throws away his now useless glasses
and emerges into the world as a new man.
The book has chapters with the titles: Memory as an Aid
to Vision, and Imagination as an Aid to Vision. All this seemed to me to be
a bit confusing. Does Bates mean that all of his cured patients didn't
really see better, rather they imagined they did, utilizing their memories
of what vision used to be like? He then tells us that glaucoma also
disappears with proper relaxation, as do floating specks, or "floaters". But
really, that is nonsense. Glaucoma cannot be cured by relaxation. As for
floaters, they may be benign, but as I discovered a few years ago, if they
increase suddenly, the last thing you should do is relax. Instead you should
go to an ophthalmologist as quickly as possible since you probably have
internal bleeding into the eyeball.
Oh well. I did try a few of Bates' recommended exercises,
but unfortunately I was not miraculously and instantaneously cured. My
vision remained as nearsighted as ever. Still, it is true that being
nearsighted, I can comfortably read without glasses, and there is a feeling
of relaxation when doing so. So at least this book has encouraged me to
remove my glasses more often when reading.
But why do so many of us wear glasses in this modern
world? The idea that nearsightedness is a genetic defect doesn't make sense
to me. It has been shown that the incidence of nearsightedness is lower when
children go out to play in the open air in natural sunlight. The growth of
the eye during childhood must be influenced by such conditions. Growing up
indoors, reading, watching television, or computer screens, or smartphones.
Doing these things as a child, the eye becomes too big so that the focal
point given by the lens lies in front of the retina. A more natural life,
looking quickly at different things at different distances out in the open,
actively playing with other children; surely this is the relaxation the eye
needs and which will lead to perfect vision later, in adult life.
This one is about the sinking of the
Lusitania in World War I. The Lusitania
was a large, very luxurious British trans-Atlantic steamer, capable of
traveling at 25 knots, from Liverpool to New York and back. On the 7th of
May, 1915, it was hit by a single torpedo, launched from the German
submarine, the U-20, sinking rapidly within 15 minutes. Thus the judgement
of J. Bernhard Walker,
citing the Lusitania as being a much safer ship when compared with the
Titanic (which took about 2 1/2 hours to sink) was proved to be false.
In a way, the comparison is unfair. Whereas the Titanic
sank during a cold night when everybody had their portholes closed, the
Lusitania was cruising along in sight of Ireland in balmy spring weather,
and so many of the passengers, defying any sensible notion of caution under
the wartime conditions and known threats of danger, left their portholes
open. The lowest row of such portholes was a mere 15 feet above the
As everybody knows, war is horrible. And World War I was
particularly horrible. Millions of young people were being forced into their
various armies to be murdered, often under the most degrading, painful
circumstances imaginable. The justification for this slaughter involved
obscure problems in Serbia, and the wish of the European powers to grab as
many colonies in Africa and Asia as possible. The aftermath of the
slaughter, the recriminations, led to World War II and an even greater
slaughter. It is arguable that if the world had not marched into World War
I, then all those lost lives under communism would not have occurred, and
the rise of nationalism might have been averted.
I suppose the most rational way to have killed off all
those millions of soldiers, a way which would have shown the world what
senseless horror it all was, would have been to have simply lined them up
and have them shot by firing squad. For this you would need a few tens of
millions of bullets and a reasonable number of rifles. Indeed, the Lusitania
was carrying many tons of bullets deep within its bowels, along with large
numbers of artillery shell casings for the British version of the slaughter.
While the Lusitania was a British ship, in 1915 many
American ships were also taking part in the arms trade. The United States
was neutral, but it was considered to be normal for neutral countries to
sell arms into Europe, making a nice profit. They would have been equally
happy to sell to Germany or to England. But there was a problem.
Being an island, Great Britain has easy access to the
sea. Ports on the west coast such as Liverpool, or Cardiff, or even
Plymouth, were far away from the fighting. On the other hand, a ship
delivering arms to Germany had to travel through the English Channel, or at
least around Scotland and through the North Sea to get to Hamburg or Bremen.
Therefore it was easy for British warships to identify and stop freighters
traveling through these long passages, examine them, and detain them if they
carried munitions to Germany. The English could say that they were
conducting their blockade in a civilized, peaceful fashion. How could
Germany maintain a similar blockade of England?
One possibility would have been to sink all British
warships, thus themselves ruling the waves and being able to blockade
England. However as the Battle
of Jutland showed, there were simply too many British ships. The
alternative was submarine warfare. This is not nice and civilized. The
submarine lurks underwater, out of sight. It launches its torpedo, watches
through a periscope as the ship sinks, the people drown. It is too small to
take aboard any survivors, and in any case, to return to home port it must
run the gauntlet through the English Chanel, or the North Sea.
The situation aboard the Lusitania was clear to everyone.
Yet, as with the Titanic, it was full speed ahead into the war zone. People
pretended there was no danger, living it up on the ship just as they would
have done in peacetime, leaving their portholes open.
This book goes into great detail, describing the lives of
some of the passengers, mainly those traveling in first class. Of course it
was a tragedy. But at least the author, Erik Larson did hint at the larger
The fact is that the British Admiralty had completely
cracked the German secret codes used for communications between the ships
and their bases on shore. Thus they were able to follow the movements of the
submarines in some detail. They knew exactly where U-20 was in the days
before the attack. And they provided close escorts for their battleships
which moved through the area, using various tactics to avoid torpedoing. But
they left the Lusitania in the dark, cruising calmly into the danger,
without warning or escort. For the English, the sinking of the Lusitania was
just what was wanted in order to lure the United States into the war - on
the side of the English. Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty,
was ecstatic. He expected the United States to join the war immediately. But
President Woodrow Wilson stood by his principles of not engaging in this
foreign European war. Thus it was only two years later, in 1917, that the
United States became involved. Afterwards Churchill wrote bitterly of his
disappointment in his famous history of the war.
He was right. What is the value of a thousand rich people
traveling on a luxurious ocean liner when compared with all the people to be
slaughtered in those extra two years of war?
An unusual story. The author, or at
least the author of the story within the story, tells us a tale about a post
World War II England in which Germany has won the war. Then in an election,
or an upheaval or something, it became communist. Difficult to imagine, but
the point of the book is that logic, or rather a lack of it, might exist in
the physical world. For this, Andrew Crumey tells us that he is the holder
of a Ph.D. in theoretical physics, where chaos reigns.
The scene of an automobile accident on a dark, rainy
night keeps being retold with different permutations. Also the scene of a
young man sitting alone on a train, reading a book, where a beautiful young
woman comes and sits down in the seat opposite undergoes many permutations.
Sometimes she says nothing. Sometimes she and the young man discuss all
their innermost feelings, but then as the train arrives, they depart without
telling each other their names. Later in life the man imagines what a
perfect partner for life he has lost.
I enjoyed the book despite the chaos. Gradually a more or
less coherent story emerged. And as with East Germany, which suffered a
similar fate, England emerges from communism, with its all-pervading,
NSA-style spying on people, into a more happy future.
According to the story, The
Secret Knowledge is the title of a piece of music for piano, written
by the composer Pierre Klauer in the year 1913.
Things start off with a little meeting between Pierre and
his sweetheart, Yvette, in a Parisian amusement park. After asking her to
marry him, Pierre walks off, telling Yvette to wait five minutes, as a kind
of test. Then he apparently blows his brains out.
We skip to the modern world. David Conroy, a deranged
teacher of piano in a music college gives a recital. Somebody comes up
afterward and gives him the manuscript of the unknown piano piece The
Secret Knowledge. Another scene. The beautiful, innocent young music
student, Paige, comes to Conroy's room at the college to begin taking
lessons with him. She plays one thing and another. He is impressed and gives
her the middle movement of The Secret Knowledge to prepare for the
The scene skips back to the year 1921, and we learn that
Pierre Klauer didn't shoot himself after all. He is now in London. Back and
forth between the lovely Paige and something in France in 1940 and the
Gestapo, New York in 1941, Frankfurt in Germany in 1967. There is an old
book containing undecipherable symbols and formulas. Various philosophers
who were mixed up together in real life: Theodor
Arendt have something to do with the book, which has something to do
with The Secret Knowledge. Where is all this leading? What is the
The end is a disappointing anticlimax. Andrew Crumey,
with his Ph.D. in theoretical physics and his elegant style of writing has
followed modern fashion by dabbling in philosophy.
It turns out that The Secret Knowledge is nothing
more than the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. A popular
idea. In the version of Andrew Crumey, the way to go is to risk your life,
leading to various possible outcomes. In one world, you blow your brains
out. But in another world you survive and emerge into a land of fairy tales
and wonder. Then you can repeat the process. How wonderful it would be to
ride high on a succession of successful worlds, avoiding disaster.
Physics in the distant past was other-worldly, lost in
the dogmas of Aristotle, wallowing in its erudite falseness. Then, beginning
in the renaissance period, physics gradually emerged from its befuddled
philosophical state. Should physics in the modern world return to that
other-worldly thinking of the past?
Looking for something interesting to
read, I came across the review in the Guardian where it is said that this
book was read by President Obama who declared it to be the best he had read
in the year 2015. The review also mentioned the fact(?) that most readers of
fiction are women, thus posing the question of why Obama would appear to
pander to the women's vote despite the fact that he was no longer eligible
to be reelected.
It's a long book. If Obama is as slow as I am at reading,
then he certainly took a great deal of time off from his presidential duties
in order to follow the story.
It is about the marriage of Mathilda to Lotto. The hero's
real name is Lancelot, but he has been given the endearing name Lotto for
some reason, a word which is normally associated with lotteries. The book
has two contrasting halves: the first half, Fates, is the story told from
the perspective of Lotto, and the second half, Furies, from the perspective
of his wife, Mathilda. The prose in the first half is disjointed, hectic,
unpleasant to read. But the second half became more coherent. Perhaps the
author, who in her internet site has included a photo
of herself which appears at such a high level of resolution that each of the
hairs on her head, or her eyebrows, and indeed, her eyes themselves, can be
examined in detail, is more comfortable when seeing things from the female
point of view.
But to get down to the basics, the story is concerned in
the main with Lotto's sexual life. Was Lauren Groff writing for an audience
of middle-aged, American females? We are told that Lotto was immensely tall,
warm, wonderful, kind-hearted, honest, full of goodness, so that all the
women in the story immediately wanted to sleep with him; a wish which he was
always happy to fulfill. And so the first half of the book is filled with
disjointed narrations of endless parties where countless females with whom
he has coupled, yet not impregnated, come and go. They are frustrated by the
fact that he has chosen Mathilda as the constant partner for his bed and all
the other places where they do it. But after many years of this, he has also
failed to impregnate Mathilda, causing him great frustration. In the
intervals between these episodes he tries - unsuccessfully - to become an
actor on the stage. But then, after years of failure, Mathilda discovers
that he is a great playwright. He becomes world famous, celebrated by young
and old. The author goes into the plots of some of his plays, giving us
snippets of the occasional dialogue. It is, of course, in the main concerned
with the various modes of human sexuality. But what we read of his imaginary
playwrighting ability was totally unconvincing, sharing the awkward,
disjointed style of the rest of the narration. I was wondering what Obama
saw in the book. Did he really read it? And why was I continuing?
Then the Furies part begins. Mathilda's perspective. We
learn that she is not the pure, angelic figure Lotto had imagined in the
first half. A complicated story. As a four year old toddler, she murders her
baby brother by throwing him down the stairs. This is in France where she
was born. She is then banned from the family and shipped off to Paris to a
distant relative, a woman who works as a prostitute. From there she is
shipped off to America, to an uncle who is some sort of mafiosi. Thankfully
he doesn't force her into prostitution, letting her live unmolested in his
large mafia mansion full of locked rooms. But at the end of her school time
he kicks her out, without money, curious to see what she will make of life.
She hooks up with an older man who finances her college education, in return
for which she provides degrading sexual services on the weekends. She keeps
all of this secret from Lotto and everybody else.
In view of the many euphoric reviews of this book, and
indeed from Obama's opinion, I see that taste in modern American literature
has apparently progressed beyond my understanding.
As a final note, the occasional dog makes its appearance
in the story (although no explicit dog couplings are described, which seems
a bit unfair). When excited, most dogs bark. But in Lauren Groff's
narration, each time a dog is excited, it "screams". How strange. Of all the
many sounds I have heard dogs making, I have never yet heard a scream.
by Vladimir Nabakov
It's nice to read a well written
book for a change! Nabakov's sentences just roll on and on, from one droll
remark to the next. And we follow his Russian emigres as they inhabit the
small-town colleges of Middle America in the 1950s, having escaped the
ravages of the Bolsheviks in the 20s and then lived in Paris until the Nazis
Our hero, Pnin, lives precariously, untenured, rooming in
the house of one or the other faculty members, here and there, year after
year. But in his mind he is still in his beloved Russia, meeting his Russian
friends, his estranged Russian wife who left him all those years ago in
Paris, hoarding all the Russian language books in the library. Even after
ten years in America and having acquired American citizenship, his command
of the English language is rudimentary, the object of universal ridicule. In
the end, his protector, Dr. Hagen, the chair of the German department,
receives an offer of a position at a more prestigious university, leaving
things to Pnin's enemies. And so we see him driving off, out of town, into
an uncertain future, lost in America.
All of the characters are literary types. The English
department, the German department, and the French department whose chair we
are told is occupied by a character who is totally ignorant of the French
language and yet who, nevertheless, is the most successful organizer of
grant money in the college. We hear nothing of the sciences, or mathematics.
Were they also represented in these small-town colleges?
I vaguely remember an acquaintance of the family back in
New Jersey when I was a child. He was a Russian emigre who had taught
physics at the University of California, but he had lost his job during the
McCarthy purges of those days. He spoke English perfectly.
This one is about a man who is in
the insurance business. A "loss adjuster", if such a thing really does exist
in real life. It seems that the business of a loss adjuster is to go in
after somebody has made a claim on the insurance and tell them that they are
cheating - something is fishy - and so the insurance won't be paid out. The
poor claimant then gets angry and the loss adjuster suggests that he take
some diminished share of the actual contracted insurance in order to avoid
further fuss. Thus the security which we had thought that we were buying
with insurance is shown to be an illusion. Life remains insecure. We are not
The story takes place in London, with the characters
driving from one address to the next along this and that road which can be
followed via Google Maps. But I soon gave up on this tedious exercise, just
letting all the names of the London streets, parks, places, and what have
you, glide by into oblivion.
The hero gets involved in a complicated and dangerous
financial scandal which I only vaguely understood. An over-insured hotel
under construction experiences a fire caused by a subcontractor afraid of
falling behind schedule and thus being subjected to a fine. Our loss
adjuster offers less than half the insurance, and the offer is -
suspiciously - immediately accepted. Then comes a take-over of the firm
constructing the hotel by some other firm, and the half-completed hotel is
torn down at much greater expense for some reason. I missed the logic here.
Anyway, during all of this, the hero gets invited to
various seemingly absurd parties put on by the mega-rich people who, for
some reason or another, seem to congregate in London these days. Does
William Boyd have personal experience of these degenerate happenings? It is
difficult for me to imagine that such people do behave in the ways
described. But who knows? perhaps the story is true to life. And as always
with these books of William Boyd, it was an enjoyable read.
This book is about marathon running.
In a way, the whole idea of the
marathon is somewhat strange and obscure. The first modern Olympics
was held in Athens in 1896, and the organizers thought it might be an
interesting idea to have a long distance foot race, based on the legend of
the ancient Athenian runner, Pheidippides,
who was supposed to have run from the town of Marathon,
where the Greek army defeated the Persians in 480 BC, back to Athens to tell
the people the result of the battle, expiring at the end.
It appears that Pheidippides was, in fact, a professional
runner in those days. Perhaps he ran all the way to Sparta and back in order
to ask the Spartans to join in the battle (they refused!), covering 240 km
in just two days. A tremendous feat. But modern scholarship casts doubt on
the marathon story. It may be that the true story is that the Athenian army,
battle-wearied, marched quickly from Marathon back to Athens to defend the
city from a possible invasion by the Persian fleet, covering the distance
weighed down with full armor and equipment in only 5 or 6 hours. Also a most
impressive athletic feat.
The 1896 version of the marathon was about 40 km, give or
take a km or two. The Paris Olympics also had a marathon, which was rather a
debacle. The organizers of the 1908 Olympics in London threw out numbers
obscure, silly competitions, but for some reason decided to retain the
marathon run. In order that the British Royal Family could have a nice view
of the start, the run began beneath the palace windows, and it was declared
that the total distance was exactly 26 miles and 385 yards. Later
measurements showed that the actual course in fact deviated from this figure
by some hundred yards, or something. But this obscure distance became the
official measure for the marathon.
In metric terms, this became 42.195 km. Now, if people
had just chosen a nice round number, such as 40 km, or 25 miles (which is
just a shade more than 40 km), then strong runners would be able to finish
within two hours. It would be like the mile run today. Back in the 1930s and
40s and into the 50s, people said that the 4-minute mile was impossible. Yet
in 1954, soon after Sir Edmund Hillary conquered Mr. Everest, Sir Roger
Bannister conquered the 4-minute mile. These days the mile is well and truly
smashed, with Hicham El Guerrouj's time of 3:43.12 thoroughly pulverizing
the 4-minute barrier. In fact, the mile is seldom run now. It is an obscure
distance, a bit longer than the standard 1500 meter run. Hardly anybody is
interested. But the much more obscure marathon distance continues to
tantalize the world. Can it be run in 2 hours?
I've been jogging more or less regularly for the last 50
years, never being very fast. These days I might run for a half hour a
couple of times a week, becoming exhausted. I did take part in the only
marathon which has been run here in the town of Bielefeld, about 30 years
ago. (Subsequent attempts to organize a marathon were stymied by the local
taxi drivers who felt that it was a hindrance to their trade.) I was
impressed by the fact that many members of the British Forces in northern
Germany were also taking part, and I enjoyed listening to their pleasant
words of encouragement to one another. I made the mistake of beginning too
quickly, and after 25 or 30 km, I felt dead. But I did manage to walk on to
the end, finishing in some dismal time. That was enough for me.
This book describes the great East African runners who
dominate the marathon these days. The author particularly spent much time
with Geoffrey Mutai,
who was the strongest runner in the years 2011-12, when the author was
writing the book. There is a short
video of his running, in slow motion. He seems to float effortlessly
through the air. Such a contrast with the heavy, plodding motions of lesser
people. He is one of many East Africans pursuing this "sport". But for them
it is a serious business.
There is big money, great success for the winners. Behind
Geoffrey Mutai, or Haile Gebrselassie, or the current world record holder,
Dennis Kimetto, whose time was 2:02.57, at the start of one of the classic
city marathons - London, New York, Berlin - are tens of thousands of
runners, hoping to make it to the end. The marathon is a modern myth, a
personal challenge. A Mt. Everest for everyone. And this is where the money
is. For example, you need to buy new running shoes at least once a year, and
they normally cost 150 euros or so, per pair. (I had been buying ASICS
shoes, but just this week I got a very comfortable pair of New Balance shoes
which were on offer for just 99 euros.)
Ed Caesar goes into the question of why these East
Africans are so totally dominant. He shows that there are a number of
factors. To be a great marathon runner, you should come from a tribe of
people who previously lived in the lowlands, but then a few generations ago
moved to the highlands. (For example, Tibetans are ruled out since, although
they live at altitude, their bodies are genetically adopted to this,
allowing them to survive with no more red blood cells than lowlanders. But
lowlanders who move to the highlands must produce an overabundance of red
blood cells, giving added endurance, but thickening the blood, thus
increasing the risk of coronary disease.) You should be born at altitude; it
is not enough to simply move there to get into training. You should run all
day as a child, barefoot, on dirt roads, giving you flexible, springy feet.
You should live on a poor farm, eating simple food, perhaps being
occasionally beaten by a violent, drunken father, giving you the knowledge
that life is tough (this according to both Geoffrey Mutai and Haile
Gebrselassie). But then, in addition to all that, the author observes that
the special tribe of the Kalenjin in the Rift Valley area of Kenya have
particularly long, slender legs, just made for long distance running. On the
other hand, he notes that some American Indian tribes in the South West of
the United States might also produce similarly successful marathon runners
if the motivation was there.
Will anyone ever run a two hour marathon? Ten or fifteen
years ago I thought this was as impossible as, say, the 3:30-minute mile,
which certainly is impossible. But now Kimetto has gotten to within 3
minutes of the goal. These records are achieved with pacemakers, running
ahead, forming a shield just in front of the champion, reducing the effect
of air resistance. For normal athletic competitions, that would be
considered cheating. Special shoes are made for the individual runners, at
great expense. And what about doping? Just today in the news it is said that
a champion woman marathon runner from Kenya has been found to have doped
with EPO, the drug that increases the density of red blood cells still
further. But in the end, with all this, somebody is bound to conquer the two
hour marathon. A strangely obscure, random distance which just happens to be
what was thought to be the distance from a window at Windsor Castle to the
royal box at the White City Stadium (including a round of the stadium) in
1908 in London.
by Richard Ford
The narrator, Dell Parsons, tells us
about what happened to him when he was 15 years old, a quiet, shy,
introspective teenager. Things which disrupted his life completely. This
takes place in the year 1960 in the town of Great Falls Montana. His father
had been in the air force, dropping bombs in World War II, and he stayed on,
moving from one airbase to another throughout the country, having the rank
of captain. Just after the war, in a feeling of triumphant euphoria, being
together with a girl after a dance, she became pregnant, and so they married
despite the fact that they were totally different people. Despite this, Dell
and his twin sister had the feeling that life was normal and their parents
were loving and sensible. But they had no friends since they had moved so
often, from one air force base to another.
Dell's father lost his job in the air force owing to a
few underhanded dealings becoming known. At loose ends, he tried his hand at
one thing and another. Dell's mother had found a job as a teacher at a local
school. But his father, having the feeling that his service in the war
entitled him to more than this, gradually decided to rob a bank. Over in
North Dakota. Richard Ford devotes at least half the book to the description
of all of this. The feelings Dell has for things. His ambitions. His views
about his father and mother, and his sister. The town of Great Falls. The
normalcy of everything.
His parents made a poor business or their amateur bank
robbery. Within a day or two, the police appeared and soon the parents were
taken away to jail.
What is this situation like for a 15 year old boy? What
does it feel like when suddenly the whole basis of your life is taken away?
For a day or two the children are left alone. They visit their parents in
prison. Will the juvenile authorities of Montana come and take them away
somewhere? To some institution for orphans? Or a foster home where they
might be treated dreadfully? Or will they even be treated as juvenile
delinquents, sent to some juvenile prison?
But the mother had arranged for an acquaintance at her
school to take them away before the juvenile authorities arrived. She was to
drive them up into Canada, to the brother of the acquaintance, Arthur
Reminger, living in some small town well north of the border.
We read about what it is like to be driven into the
unknown. Alone (Dell's sister had run away before this). Cut off. Put into
the hands of strange, unpleasant people. A rude, primitive life of cleaning
Reminger's dilapidated hotel; living alone in a broken-down hovel a mile or
more out of town; organizing things for the drunken "Sports", coming for a
weekend of geese shooting from Toronto, or from south of the border; talking
to the prostitutes working at the hotel.
We gradually learn that Arthur Reminger also has a secret
past. He is an elegant man, strangely elegant for the owner of such a hotel
of ill-repute. And things come to a crisis. Another, even worse crime. But
in the end Arthur's girlfriend arranges that Dell escape to Winnipeg where
her brother lives. Here the narration stops. Life becomes normal again. Dell
tells us that he goes to school in Winnipeg, becomes a Canadian citizen,
marries a wonderful Canadian woman and lives a fulfilling life up to now,
when he is writing his story.
He never again meets, or has any contact whatsoever with
his parents. His sister has lived a degenerate, drug-filled life in
California, and at the end of the book he travels there to meet her, finding
her almost crippled, in pain, the late stages of cancer. She tells him that
their parent's absurd bank robbery had ruined her life, but for Dell it was,
in the end, just an interesting episode which didn't really change anything.
A powerful, absorbing book, very different from the
author's Frank Bascombe novels.
The reason I thought to read this
book is that in the previous one, Canada, by Richard Ford, towards the end,
a number of books were mentioned as being good descriptions of life suddenly
changing, becoming chaotic. I had read the other ones, but this book was new
to me. And looking it up, I found that various literary journals included it
in their lists of the 100 greatest novels of some category or another. Also
the author, Paul Bowles,
had an interesting life, as a mature man living in Morocco but doing much
traveling, being acquainted with all the famous literary personalities of
his time, close to the composer Arron Copland and himself becoming a
The book was written in 1947 and the story takes place in
Algeria, then a colony of France. We have three young, more or less bored
Americans, arriving by ship with the intention of exploring the Sahara
desert. Port (the man) and Kit (the woman) are married, and Tunner (also a
man) is a friend. They each stay in separate hotel rooms, meeting rather
formally to complain about everything, including one another.
A strange mother and son appear, driving a powerful
Mercedes. It turns out that they later steal Port's passport in order to
sell it on the black market, raising some money. This seemed to me to be
somewhat incongruous, since you could hardly maintain a large Mercedes,
especially in 1947, on the money obtained by the occasional passport theft.
Anyway, they offer to transport Port and Kit to the next desert town in the
comfort of their Mercedes, but not Tunner, who must make do with the
primitive Algerian rail system. Kit refuses the offer, and so Port goes
alone with the Mercedes people and Kit and Tunner travel together by rail,
during which Tunner more or less rapes Kit in their first class - but
primitive - cabin. Kit is repelled, and yet also attracted to Tunner, at
least given the absence of Port. But upon arrival in the town and meeting up
with Port who has again arranged three separate rooms, Kit mediates on the
superiority of Port in comparison with Tunner.
All of this seemed very strange. How many young married
couples take separate hotel rooms? And all of this chaos of each of them
going off in one direction or another, leaving the others in the lurch.
Reading the Wikipedia version of the life of the author, I see that he was
homosexual, or at least bisexual, and his wife Jane
Bowles was as well. Thus they lived more or less together, seeking
fulfillment outside marriage. Well, yes. I suppose that could be a sensible
relationship, even based on a deep love for one another.
But to return to the story, Port suddenly decides to
travel on to the next town, and he rushes Kit into the bus in the middle of
the night with Tunner lost in some other town. During the long night drive,
Port begins to get sick. It is typhoid
fever. A very unpleasant condition in 1947 - before the advent of
antibiotics. Port is almost unconscious upon arrival, but the only hotel, or
hostel, is locked to avoid infection. They suddenly find themselves in an
open truck, lying on sacks of potatoes, traveling through the next night to
the next town. Nobody speaks a language they can understand. Upon arrival
the unpleasant French officer at the fort puts them in a room where Kit
tries to nurse Port back to life. But he dies. And she seems to go crazy.
Then we have the third, and last part, of the book. Kit
runs out of town into the desert in the night. The next day she sees a camel
caravan approaching and hitches a ride. The two men in charge alternately
rape her, but she falls in love with one of them. She cannot speak their
language. After weeks of this, the caravan arrives in a town and Kit is led
forcefully into into a huge house where she is installed in a closed room
with bed, apart from the other wives, subject to the continuous sexual
attentions of her lover, or oppressor. She escapes, but then tries to run
away rather than being led to the French authorities and civilization.
Eventually she is transported by force back to Algiers and the American
Consul in a mentally deranged state, escaping at the end of the book into
the night. We are not told of her fate. Will she become a faceless
prostitute somewhere in the backwaters of Algiers?
The book made little sense to me. But this is true of
many other things as well.
This one is about the Russian
composer, Shostakovitch. It is presented as being an historical novel, but
in reality it is a kind of biography where we are taken through the various
stages of the life of the hero. Unlike a serious biography in which all - or
at least most - statements are supported by detailed references, here the
biographer is concerned with imagining what the hero thought and felt,
independently of any concrete evidence as to such details.
And so - as a biography - I found the book to be
interesting. As we all know, Shostakovitch felt his life to be in danger,
threatened by Stalin to be killed, tortured, transported to a Siberian death
camp. Before reading the book I had no idea what Stalin had against him.
After all, in the 1930s millions of people were sent through the communist
torture chambers and on to the death camps of Siberia for no apparent
Under Stalin, the mere act of making music was not
considered sufficient grounds for liquidating people. In fact it is said
that he actually liked listening to music - in rather the same way that
Hitler liked listening to all those Richard Wagner operas. Shostakovitch's
mistake was to write an opera which celebrated not the mysteries of those
nebulous Germanic heroes of old, but rather the bucolic life of the heroic
Russian communist worker. The opera was a success, and so Stalin attended a
performance, finding the music to be not to his taste. He instructed his
secret police to make life difficult for Shostakovitch, but not to kill him,
thus sending the message to all composers that they must write things which
Stalin might prefer.
Well, we have a subscription to Google Play Music, and
thus it is possible to listen to recordings of practically everything there
is. Thus when reading this book I let the computer play through numbers of
Shostakovitch symphonies; they soon irritated me.
In fact I remember that the only time I ever attended a
concert in the Royal Albert Hall in London, at least 30 years ago, they
played a Shostakovitch symphony. We were sitting right up at the top. It was
loud, but I remember thinking that perhaps it represented the anguish of
communist Russia and the suffering of World War II. Or something.
But now I seem to have simply outgrown all of this
symphonic music. On the other hand, in the book, Julian Barnes has his
Shostakovitch continually comparing himself to Stravinsky, who had escaped
communism to live a free life in the West. And so I let the computer play
through some of Stravinsky's beautiful music: the Firebird, Petrushka,
Apollon Musagète... As a student I used to listen endlessly to my
records of these things. But Shostakovitch? How can one compare him to this?
Shostakovitch was required to write lots of music for the
movies (such as they were under communism). Quite frankly I think that most
film music, at least of the background, symphonic kind, is simply
irritating, often spoiling a good movie. What a contrast to such things as
the songs of Simon and Garfunkel in The Graduate, or the music in Butch
Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Under fascism or communism, painters painted ridiculous
scenes of the imagined heroic life of the farm laborer or the factory
worker. Sculptors created absurd images of the peasant He-Man. And also
composers were forced to create some sort of music which conformed with the
tastes of their leaders.
For me these Shostakovitch symphonies sound like the
hectic sound tracks of action movies which have gone completely out of
control, and so I feel sad for him. Was it a wasted life? I wonder whether
if he had been born a bit earlier and thus had the opportunity to escape to
the freedom of the West, that he might have been able to compose music
approaching the quality of Stravinsky.
Yet another book based on the Many
Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics! What is this world
coming to? In fact, at the end of the book, the author, Blake Crouch, lists
a number of people who are supposed to be serious physicists, bringing them
in to all of this nonsense. Does he imply that he actually consulted these
people and got them to agree to his using their names? In fact he does drag
somebody by the name of "Clifford Johnson, Ph.D." very specifically into
The story has to do with the "Schrödinger Cat" business.
If you put a cat in a box and wait a while, then if you later take a look,
you will find that it is either alive or dead, or at least more dead than
alive, or alive than dead. Perhaps being executed, or not, according to
whether or not a particular atom decays - thus transporting us into the
usual nebulous realms of the Very Small - where people think quantum
mechanics applies - and linking this to something big, like a cat. It all
has to do with "collapsing wave functions". According to the "Copenhagen
Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics", the waves of quantum mechanics only
collapse, rendering something observable, when somebody makes an
observation. (People who are prepared to think clearly will find that such
things do not really need not be invoked in order to understand quantum
But the premise of the present book is that you can get
into a box which is somehow totally isolated from the rest of the world
(which is nonsense), then take a drug which turns off the observing parts of
the brain, observing(?) then that the box becomes an infinite tunnel with
infinitely many doors, each of which leads to a different possible future
branching off from the point where you entered the box. In order to make
such ideas sound serious and mysterious, which perhaps the words "Many
Worlds" does not do, people have now invented a new word - "multiverse".
This is surely some sort of contradiction in language, since the definition
of the word "universe"
is everything that there is.
It all becomes a strange story in which a man is dragged
into the box and injected with the drug, ending up in some other world. He
then tries desperately to get back to his familiar world with his wife and
child. But then, somehow, other versions of himself split apart and also try
to return. They all end up fighting each other. This reminded me of the
real-life horror stories of fathers who lose their families when their wives
go off with other men. They then murder not the man who has seduced the
wife, but rather their own children and then themselves.
So the book was, in a way, similar to a time-machine
story, but with these twists into the "multiverse" of different worlds.
Amusing. If I had known what it was really about, I wouldn't have bought it
in the first place. The trouble was the very positive amazon.com reviews by
all those fantasy fiction fans.
The author recently turned 80, and
to honor this event various news sites wrote articles about him. His name
only vaguely struck a bell somewhere in my consciousness and so, given the
adulation all of these news media were devoting to him - and indeed, given
the length of his
Wikipedia article (comparable to that of Shakespeare) - I was led to
order one of his books via Amazon to read on my Kindle.
Wading through the Wikipedia text, I see that his most
celebrated novel is "Gravity's Rainbow". It is said to be so dense that
authors have seen fit to publish reader's guides to aid the reader
through the difficult intellectual challenge represented by the book. Rather
in the style of the Classic Comics which, as a student in high school, I
found to be a godsend when required to write one of those dreadful book
reviews. And so, thinking to avoid such things and seeing that some Amazon
reviewers declared the present book to be the most easily accessible of
Pynchon's novels, I ordered it.
But to be honest, I was only able to reach the 23rd
percentage point of the book before giving up. There seems to be no
Classical Comic version available in order to find out what happens, or
indeed, to understand what happened in the first 23% of the book. I do see
that they recently made a Hollywood movie of the book, and it received two
Oscar nominations. But I didn't see that either.
The book is concerned with various degenerate types
living in Southern California during the 1960s. The dialog is filled with so
much obscure slang and apparent references to things I know nothing about
that it was for me barely comprehensible. What I was able to comprehend
seemed banal and boring.
Many people consider Thomas Pynchon to be one of the
greatest writers who ever lived. Who am I to contradict this, given that I
have only managed to make it through 23% of his most accessible book? He
apparently lives the life of a recluse in some rarefied, ethereal sphere,
removed from the normal world of simple-minded people like me.
A fascinating book with many ideas
which often made me think about things in a new light. For example the book
begins by describing the situation 70,000 years ago when "our" version of
humanity began to assert itself. Back then, there were at least three other
versions of humanity, that is, subspecies of the genus Homo: the
Neanderthals, the Denisovans,
and the Floresiensis,
and perhaps a few others as well. It is unclear how closely related they all
were to our version of humanity. Could people from our line of descent
interbreed with them to produce viable offspring, or would the products be
like the mule, an infertile cross between a horse and a donkey? Certainly it
is known that Neanderthals did interbreed with the non-African population of
modern humanity. Their brains were, on average, even bigger than ours.
Neanderthals occupied modern Eurasia for hundreds of
thousands of years. Yet in all this time, the artifacts we have from them
hardly changed. They kept on making the same stone tools for all those
hundreds of thousands of years, millennia after millennia. This is a huge
amount of time. To put it into perspective: in astrology, an "Age"
is related to the 12 signs of the Zodiac. The period of the presession
of the Earth's axis is about 26,000 years, and thus an astrological
age is just over 2,000 years long. The world's "eternal" religions are tied
to these ages: Christianity is Pisces (the fish), Judaism is Aries (the
ram), ancient Greek religion was Taurus (the Bull), and so forth, going back
in time from one age to the next. For us, just one such "age" is
immeasurably long. Most people cannot trace their ancestors back through
more than a tiny fraction of a just a single age. One period of the Earth's
pressession represents 12 such ages. Yet the Neanderthals lived on for 20 or
30 such unimaginably long cycles. Doing what? No artwork, apart from a few
random scratches in a cave in Gibraltar is known. How can we understand
this? Did they have language? What were they thinking with their large
brains? Nothing? Or were they living in a timeless paradise, profoundly
satisfied with life, seeing no reason to "advance" themselves? Totally
uninterested in making scratches on the rocks.
Harari advances the theory that we distinguish ourselves
from those other versions of humanity by living in a world of myths. In the
time before 70,000 years ago, none of the versions of humanity were able to
think about myths. Abstract storytelling, imagining things which are untrue.
Then perhaps suddenly - a genetic mutation? - modern people developed the
capacity for myth-making.
I'm not sure if I follow him on this. As Daniel
Everett showed, the Piraha tribe in South America is a tribe of modern
humans, but they do not have myths. They consider abstract stories to be
totally incomprehensible. It was impossible to explain to them the concept
of numbers. Perhaps this is an example of a people of our species living as
the Neanderthals did, in a timeless paradise, free of the ambitions which
plague the rest of us.
But Harari goes on to show just how much we have become
the products of our myths. Of course there is religion. As he explains it,
such myths are necessary in order to allow large numbers of people who do
not know each other personally to live together peacefully. Thinking about
the myths of various present-day religions, he proposes a practical
definition for the word "religion". We imagine that in the modern,
sophisticated world, religion is dead. But it has been replaced by new
religions: nationalism, capitalism, communism, fascism, and so forth. Thus
the greatest, most destructive, most cruel wars of religion occurred in the
last century, not in the middle ages.
Our civilization is held together with myths. Common
myths which everybody believes in, for without such belief society would
fall apart. For example the myth of money. After all, gold is an almost
totally useless metal. It does have some practical applications in
electrical appliances. Also it can be used for filling teeth cavities
(although modern porcelain fillings might be superior). And the pieces of
paper which are used as money have, of course, practically no intrinsic
value. This is the reason that the bank robber, or the counterfeiter is so
severely punished, often more so even than a man-slaughterer. Society cannot
tolerate the myth of money being brought into question.
Harari tells us that the prosperity of modern society is
due to the development of fractional reserve banking. Is this true? Perhaps.
But I can't see how the present system of monetary inflation, zero-interest
debt expanding into an unprecedented debt bubble, can be sustained for much
On the other hand, it is interesting to imagine how
humanity transformed itself from a hunter-gatherer society to an
agricultural society 10,000 years ago. It is often said that the lives of
primitive cave-men were miserable, but is that true? There are still a few
tribes of people living in Australia and South-West Africa following this
way of living. They have hundreds of different sources of healthy food. In a
dry spell, or a wet spell, there are always various foods to eat and they
only require a couple of hours a day to look for them. (I'm just now
thinking about the unpleasant drive to the supermarket which I have to get
done with this morning. It also takes an hour or two. But at least I can
gather enough food to last for a few days, thanks to our refrigerator.) For
the hunter-gatherer there is never famine, little disease. The indigenous
people of Australia also lived in an almost unchanging world for tens of
thousands of years, but at least they did express their modern humanity by
covering the landscape with their art and telling one another dream-like
Contrast this with the farmer in all those thousands of
years before the invention of powered machinery. Working from dawn to dusk.
Afraid of drought, insect pests, weeds, recurring periods of famine,
overpopulation, invasion by neighboring tribes. Living together in crowded,
filthy hovels, suffering from endemic diseases. Thankfully, modern society
lets machines do the work, and hopefully, in the future, robots can be used
to eradicate weeds rather than spraying poison all over the place as is the
So why is it that people became agriculturists? Harari
explains the steps which led people to domesticate wheat, rice, maize and so
on. Each small step seemed to be a logical, sensible thing to do. But in the
end, one can say that these obscure forms of grass have domesticated us.
From the point of view of the "selfish gene", wheat has been overwhelmingly
successful, dominating the planet and forcing humans to nurture it with
- But that is not to say that I am unhappy with life,
living in a house, buying food with pieces of paper which come out of a
And what does Harari think of the future? Of course there
is the recent phenomenon of the internet. I enjoy writing this stuff here,
and reading all sorts of more or less crazy things which other people write
on the internet. But I am certainly not dominated by my smartphone. It's an
old one which was given to me when the first androids came out. Google or
Samson or whoever it is that is responsible for updates has long ago refused
to have anything more to do with it. Hardly any of the current "apps" can be
downloaded. But it still works perfectly well for the occasional phone call.
Otherwise I leave it in "airplane mode" so - at least I believe - it is
incapable of being used by the CIA to spy on me. In fact apart from this, I
only use the instrument tuner function in order to tune the viol, and also
the calendar function to keep track of appointments. I also carry it with me
when driving so that if somebody crashes into our car, then I can take some
pictures of the damage for the insurance. I have never even seen what the
apparently ubiquitous Facebook looks like. Is it so wonderful to be
continuously chatting with people who are not here? (Although Harari says
that gossip is the main function of language and the reason that language
was invented. It is essential for the coherence of the tribe. - But on the
other hand, wolves, chimpanzees and many other types of animals are able to
maintain their tribes in a coherent state without an elaborate language, so
I'm not sure that I follow the author here either.)
Students of science look down upon those ignorant people
who believe every word they find in their Bibles and thus believe in
something they call "intelligent design". The thing - whatever it is - they
associate with the word "God" is supposed to have designed all the details
of the living organisms here on the Earth. But now we have arrived at the
situation that humanity is gradually being able to design life by
constructing variations of the DNA molecule. We have now become "God", and
in the future we will actively pursue the intelligent(?) design of life on
the Earth, starting with ourselves.
by Min Kym
The author is a Korean violin
virtuoso whose Stradivarius violin was stolen in a London railroad cafe. She
tells us about the devastating effect this has had on her life. When reading
the book, I looked about the internet to find videos of her playing in order
to see what she is like. I could only find one or two short excerpts, for
example here, a
snippet from her recording of the Beethoven violin concerto. This was before
her Stradivarius was stolen. What a contrast with, say, this
video of David Garret playing around with a collection of Stradivari.
Or perhaps more relevant would be Hilary Hahn who has
allowed many full-length videos to be freely streamed in the internet, for
Hilary Hahn defies convention by playing a violin which is not a
Stradivarius. Nor is it a Guarneri or an Amati. Instead it is a 19th century
copy (by Jean-Baptiste
Vuillaume) of Paganini's Cannone violin.
In fact, after Min Kym lost her Stradivarius she obtained
another one, which was said to be one of Stradivarius' best, however
somewhere along the line in the 19th century, its top was smashed and was
then replaced. Could this repair have been by Vuillaume himself? But for Min
Kym, it was nothing. A disappointment. A break with the true love of her
life. Stradivarius! The pure, unadulterated master. At the end of the book
she tells us that she is now trying to make do with an Amati.
Well, OK. But to be quite frank, the thought of Hilary
Hahn seems to me to be more appealing. Her instrument has probably cost only
a tenth, or less, as much as these Stradivari. Still a lot, but not such a
big deal. Not life-threatening. And listen to the sound she can produce! But
The author of our book tells us much about her life. It
is almost an autobiography. When she was very young her father was assigned
by his Korean company to work in their offices in Libya. Thinking it would
be inappropriate for the family to also live there, the wife and two
daughters took up residence in London, so that Min Kym grew up as an English
woman. But at home, and when visiting the family in Korea, she experienced
very different standards. Family was everything, everything else was
nothing. Respect for the elders. She tells us that she was even expected to
ask her mother before she was allowed to drink a glass of water! And so the
book is filled with her stories of how obedient she is. Always following the
instructions of others. Never being allowed to question. And this goes for
her music as well.
Such a contrast with say Nigel Kennedy with his punk
clothes and haircut, and forays into jazz. Or David Garret who stumbled when
walking off the stage, falling on his Stradivarius violin, crunching all of
its fragile wood, probably ruining it in spite of a £60,000 repair job. And
I'm sure he smiled afterwards.
Min Kym becomes quite personal. Describing her
relationship with Matt. A few seconds of googling brings up Matthew
Huber, who now works as a London dealer for the New York based firm of
Tarisio. She describes him as being overbearing, jealous. And she describes
the scene in the cafe at London's Euston station where they are waiting for
a train to travel together to Matt's place in Manchester. She is feeling
tired, a bit sick. She holds the violin in its case tightly, as ever. Matt
tells her to relax. Put the violin with the other luggage and Matt's quarter
of a million pound cello over next to the window. Next to Matt. She resists.
He insists. She gives way. Then a moment of inattention and a band of
thieves in the crowded, hectic cafe. It has disappeared! Panic.
She falls into bottomless depression. Staying for weeks
in bed. Letting everything go. Concert appearances, record contracts, all
become meaningless. Huge amounts of money are at stake. And during all this
time she keeps hanging on to Matt.
We would like to tell her to just pull herself together
and get on with life. But how are we to understand such a concert virtuoso?
How can they play so fast and so accurately, producing such a wonderful
musical tone out of a little box of wood? It is so phenomenal that we
question how it is possible. The wonderful thing is that a great player
transcends just the circus quality of the thing - astonishing us with the
number of notes played per second - to give a moving, emotional statement.
And such is the brutality of music. There must be
thousands of young people who can play the same number of notes per second
with reasonable accuracy as the great soloists. But they don't move us. Who
knows why? Does the magic of a Stradivarius make a difference?
It's like acting. We all speak, but only few people have
great voices which can bring an audience to tears. Or singing. What is it in
Barbra Streisand's voice which is so overwhelming? A great violinist must
have not only this but also the inhuman technical abilities, the command of
the fingers and bow, demanded of the violin.
This is an historical novel of
ancient Greece, dealing with the period at the end of the Peloponnesian
war, from the Sicilian
Expedition of 415 BC to the surrender of Athens in 404 BC. The hero is
an invented character, Alexias, a youth of perhaps 15 at the start of story.
He becomes an enthusiastic disciple of Socrates and is good friends with
Plato and Xenophon.
Despite this, the story ends before the death of Socrates, so we miss the
author's observations on the famous trial and death by suicide.
I enjoyed reading this book. Telling things from a
personal, if invented perspective gives a feeling for what life must have
been like in those times. Lots of fighting. People's farms being burned,
ruined. Then the siege of Athens behind the Long Walls (the famous plague
of Athens came somewhat earlier, in 430 BC), and the desperate hunger
and poverty the people faced, leading them to surrender to Lysander
and the oligarchy of the 30 Tyrants under Critias.
The first chapters of the book have the beautiful,
athletic Alexias being courted by many of the leading men of Athens, and he,
as a kind of young male damsel, playing hard to get. Eventually he enters
into a deep relationship with Lysis, a man perhaps 10 years older,
supposedly the son of Democritus.
So this is ancient Greek homosexuality.
Looking at the Wikipedia
entry for the author, I see that she was homosexual, and thus she was
very interested in this aspect of ancient Greek life. In the article on Homosexuality
in ancient Greece, it is explained as having an origin in still more
ancient times, perhaps when people lived as hunter-gatherers. As part of the
ritual of entering manhood, the adolescent would accompany an older man into
the bush, living rough for a time, learning the ways of the tribe. In the
classical Greek period, the relationship seems to have been of a generally
platonic nature, restricted to young men of the aristocratic class. And such
was the relationship between the Alexias and Lysis of the story. They fought
battles together, stood by one another through thick and thin. At most there
is some jealousy when Lysis marries a young woman, but even then they stick
According to the article, penetrative anal sex was
generally considered to be outside the socially accepted norm of this
adolescent and adult "love". Other forms of sexuality were undoubtedly
involved. But love between adult men was not considered to be proper.
Judging from the evidence of ancient Greek theater, the adult recipient of
penetrative homosexuality was an object of disgrace and shame.
What a contrast with the modern world! The pedophile is
now a disgusting monster. A German politician who was so careless as to
download images of naked youths, posing in the ancient Greek style, onto his
parliamentary laptop was removed from all his offices and subjected to
universal disgrace. There was no suggestion that he had actually had contact
with any young people. Despite this, legal processes were initiated, but
later dropped. It was then suggested by various experts on television talk
shows that he was not a criminal, but rather a sick person for whom we
should feel sorrow. His sickness might be cured using various forms of
therapy, or drugs. And yet just 40 or 50 years ago, some of the early Green
Party politicians advocated the decriminalization of sexual relations
between adults and children. They have since apologized; on the grounds of
political expediency? On the other hand, adult homosexuality is most
everywhere (although not in Russia) accepted, even encouraged as being the
higher, purer form of love. Many politicians have gained sympathy by openly
marrying their homosexual partners.
So what are we to make of all this?
Surely it is sensible to be tolerant of things which do
not cause discomfort to any of the people involved. But the recent laws
which have been passed, forbidding people to take their mobile phones to the
beach for fear that they might inadvertently take a picture of somebody else
are surely absurd. Those who wear revealing costumes - or not - in public
are making a public display of themselves, one way or another.
This is a book with alternating
chapters, telling the story from alternating perspectives. The chapters are
titled "Joseph" and "Madeline". The Joseph chapters take place in the London
of 1860, or thereabouts, and the Madeline chapters take place in present-day
London (the book has just recently been published in 2017). The Guardian
Review of the book is here.
The imaginary Joseph Benson is doing research for the
real-life Henry Mayhew,
whose series of books on London
Labour and the London Poor is a classic, describing in detail the
lives of ordinary people in those days, which he called the "Street-Folk".
The fourth volume, which was published ten years after the first three,
dealt with the conditions of prostitutes in Victorian London, and according
to the book, Joseph Benson, who is badly in need of a source of income, has
been hired by Mayhew to do the research here. He seems to be happily married
to a French woman. Owing to a period of illness, he lost his job as a clerk
with the London Police. If he is not careful he and his family will
themselves become a part of the London Poor.
His original wife died during childbirth, and so he
married her sister. Perhaps he finds the sister to be a poor substitute for
his first love, and so he occasionally has a quick encounter with one or
another of the London prostitutes. These encounters occur when he enters a
pub with the intention of getting down to work, doing some quiet writing,
putting his thoughts together in order to make a reasonable presentation for
Mr. Mayhew. A shy young woman sits down at the table, apologizing for
perhaps disturbing Joseph. They get into a conversation. Eventually the
woman, ever so politely, wonders if Joseph would like to have sex. They
quickly go out to the back yard of the pub, or more elegantly, to a room
upstairs, where the woman raises her skirts and Joseph satisfies himself,
afterwards being troubled by the whole experience.
Is that what it was like in London in 1860? We also have
Joseph being constantly and openly accosted on the streets by prostitutes. I
suppose the author, Michele Roberts, has read Mayhew's Volume 4, and thus
she bases her descriptions on authentic evidence from that period.
Joseph gets to know Mrs. Dulcimer, who has a boarding
house which, at first, Joseph took to be a brothel, allowing him to gather
information for Mayhew, but in fact it was a refuge for poor women in
The Madeline chapters, taking place in modern London,
contain no prostitutes. Madeline was a Lecturer in Literature at a London
University who was made redundant since, in the modern world, presumably
Literature is considered to be worthless when compared with Science. She is
an older woman in her 50s or 60s. We read much about her friend Toby who is
homosexual, and how he gets together with Anthony, having a wonderful life
of love. Both Madeline and another character, a woman, Francine, seem to be
left out in the cold.
So what is the author telling us here? Were men a hundred
and fifty years ago frustrated, seeking to satisfy their desires with
fleeting, meaningless encounters, leaving the women to suffer together under
the protection of the pleasant, motherly Mrs. Dulcimer? And in contrast,
today the men of London live happily together, satisfying their desires
homosexually, leaving the women alone, frustrated, unfulfilled. This seems
to be the world that Michele Roberts is presenting to us. An unpleasant
I don't really enjoy books like this which, in the end,
simply say that life is a tedious, depressing mess, without redemption. But
perhaps Mrs. Dulcimer does give us a ray of hope.
This isn't really about the city of
Samarkand, with its
monumental, tiled Registan
which was built in the time of Tamerlane, around the year 1400, when
Samarkand was the center of Transoxiana. Instead the story is mainly
concerned with the mathematician, poet and philosopher, Omar
Khayyam, who lived from the 18th of May, 1048 till the 14th of
December, 1131. And the second half of the book describes the fictional
adventures of Benjamin O. Lesage, an American who has become obsessed with
the idea of finding the original manuscript of Khayyam's famous Rubaiyat.
He finds it, along with a beautiful Persian princess which he marries, both
of which he wishes to bring to his wealthy home at Annapolis, Maryland.
Unfortunately, in his euphoria, he chooses to transport them across the
Atlantic in the height of luxury aboard the brand-new steamship RMS Titanic.
It is the year 1912, and the manuscript sinks with the ship. Both Benjamin
and his princess survive, but upon arrival in New York she disappears, never
to be seen again, as much a figment of the imagination as the lost Rubaiyat.
Years ago I got a very nice edition of Edward
Fitzgerald's original, very loose translation of a few of the quatrains of
the Rubaiyat, published with drawings in the style of the 1890s by the Folio
Society. It is only about 20 pages long. The poems are saying that life is
short. Enjoy life and love and wine and the magnificence of the world as it
is while you are alive. Many of the poems are concerned with wine.
But isn't wine prohibited by Islam, and wasn't Persia
overrun by all those Islamists even before the time of Omar Khayyam? This
confused me, but that was back in the days before the World Trade Center
fell down and the USA started its crusade to terrorize the Islamic world.
Therefore it seemed to me to be of no consequence, and I read the poems at
Looking it up, I see that the Islamic position on wine
apparently stems from the Suras 2:219 and 5:90 in the Qur'an. In the
translation which I have, both Suras refer to strong drink. The
common meaning of that term, at least in Europe, is distilled
alcohol (whisky, rum, and so forth), not wine or beer. For me, I find that
with age my tolerance for strong drink has evaporated; it gives me an
immediate headache. In fact the same is true if I drink more than a single
glass of wine. But I can tolerate a pint of beer quite nicely in the
evening. At least here in Germany, beer is brewed with no additives other
than the traditional three ingredients.
The contradiction in the Qur'an is related to the suras
47:15 and 83:22,25. There we are told that in Paradise we will experience
the bliss of rivers of delicious wine... Or is the contradiction resolved if
wine was not considered to be a strong drink in ancient Arabia?
Well, I, for one, would not like to be in that Paradise.
It would give me a splitting headache.
One way or another we are led to think of the debauchery
of all those Saudi royal princes, drinking themselves into insensibility in
the privacy of their kitsch-filled palaces, or their Spanish villas. And
then the horrible hypocrisy. Common people caught with a drop of wine are
thrown into dungeons, tortured. Not to mention people who hold hands, or
kiss their loved ones in public.
Was the world of Omar Khayyam less filled with hypocrisy?
I remembered reading another book from the Folio Society: The Travels of
Pietro della Valle. He was an Italian who set off on a pilgrimage to the
Holy Land in the year 1614. But rather than stopping there, he decided to
continue his travels onward towards the East, through Persia and India. He
stayed in Persia from 1617 to 1623. And in the book he describes a visit to
the King, or Shah, or whatever it was, telling us that the wine flowed
freely. In fact he normally didn't drink wine, but it was clear that by not
doing so would have caused offense. So perhaps then, and 500 years earlier
during the time of Khayyam, Islamic life might not have been so oppressive.
That is not to say that life in the modern "western"
world is not similarly oppressive and filled with hypocrisy. The possession
of small amounts of cannabis is still subjected to criminal prosecution.
Be that as it may, the book is in two parts. First
we have a kind of biography of Khayyam, embedded in a history of Persian
politics in the 11th and 12th centuries. I found this to be rather
unsatisfying. After all, if you want to find out about who was the grand
vizier, or the shah, or whatever, and what battles they fought, and with
whom, then it is simpler to read the appropriate
entry in the Wikipedia. That would also seem to be more trustworthy,
since Maalouf's version is written in the style of an historical novel. For
me this obscure Persian history dragged on for too long. And we suspect that
most of the story of Khayyam's life described in the novel is also just an
This is a shame. I wonder how much is definitely known?
Omar Khayyam was not just a poet. In fact he was one of the greatest
mathematicians of the middle ages. As a mathematician he was famous for
describing a method for finding the real roots of any real third degree
polynomial. For those who are interested, I have found this
link to a discription of the method by David Henderson of Cornell
University. We are impressed with how difficult it was to use geometry in
order to solve problems in algebra. Negative numbers are not allowed since
distances are non-negative. Thus there is a whole flock of different cases
of cubic equations, with their different geometric solutions.
Who is interested these days in those old, flawed
definitions of Euclid - which are not really definitions at all, more like
poetic descriptions of something which seems to be loosly connected with the
geometry of the real world? Khayyam did give some thought to the problem of
Euclid's parallel axiom, and from his writings it seems that he was heading
towards the discovery of non-euclidean geometry.
In the modern world you can just look up the formula for
the solutions of cubic equations, either in books, or
in the internet. No big deal. But this business of finding solutions
of polynomial equations was the backbone of pure mathematics throughout the
middle ages. These days we think of the work of Galois
as being the great thing. And we are happy to simply prove the Fundamental
Theorem of Algebra and be done with it.
The second part of the book, describing the adventures of
Benjamin O. Lesage, seemed at first to be interesting. But then it became a
tedious description of the obscure politics of Iran during the period
1900-10. The author, Amin Maalouf, clearly sees it as his mission to educate
us about all of this history. But it was too long, and we are left to wonder
if all of the details are historical facts, or are they just inventions,
created in order to make the Lesage story more interesting. I was often
consulting Google. For example I found that the story of William
Morgan Shuster was, in fact, true. Such a contrast with the situation
today! What a change for the worse in the policies of the United States.
And then, finally, we have the story of the lost
manuscript on the Titanic. The true story is described in this
article in the Iran Times. It was an American edition of the Rubaiyat
which was sent to a British book-binding firm to be bound in bejeweled
kitsch, and it was then sold at auction. In order to send it to its new
owners in America, Sotheby's put it on the Titanic.
It took me a while to find an
enjoyable book to read. At first I tried (re)reading Mark Twain's Connecticut
Yankee in King Arthur's Court. I must have first read it over 50 years
ago when I thought it was fun, but now, reading it again was a tedious
exercise. The Kindle version in gutenberg.org includes all the illustrations
of the original edition. Despite this, I gave up after only getting through
just a quarter, or a third of the book. For Mark Twain, everything in 5th or
6th century Britain was an absurd farce, and the time-traveling hero goes on
and on, preaching to us about the wonders of all the modern (1880s) United
States American accomplishments. For me it was no longer funny.
So then I tried the more recent book Serious Sweet,
by A.L. Kennedy, which, we are told, was long-listed for the Booker Prize. I
should have remembered that whereas Booker Prize winning - or nominated -
books were previously enjoyable to read, these days they seem to have become
nothing more than exercises in abstract literary experimentation. In the
present case, the story is about two depressing older people on a grey day
in London - a man and a woman - absorbed in self-centered thoughts. We are
told that one or another does something, and then follows a long passage,
describing all the words passing through their heads, most of which are
unpleasant, meditating on what has just happened. When trying to read this
it occurred to me that I very seldom think in words, except when sitting
here, trying to think of something to write. According to the blurbs
accompanying the book, it all turns into a beautiful love story. Maybe. But
after spending hours reading through all this depressing stuff I gave up
before the grey London day had even become afternoon.
Finally I found this book by Michelle Frances. It has
only recently been published. The story takes place in modern London. The
girlfriend, Cherry, comes from the poor, southwest part of town. Her mother
works at the checkout of a supermarket. There was never enough money. Cherry
was outstanding at school, but there was no money to send her to university.
At least she was able to talk her way into a job selling real-estate in the
most expensive areas of London. And so she meets Daniel, the boyfriend, who
is looking for a small apartment near his parent's palatial London
townhouse. She shows him one which might meet his requirements, costing a
couple of million pounds. There are one or two other possibilities, but he
says, why bother? he'll just take this one. It can be easily paid for using
his multi-million pound trust fund.
Daniel also thinks it would be nice to have Cherry as
well. And she finds Daniel to be attractive, particularly considering that
he would be the answer to all her financial ambitions. She had previously
been jilted by a rich boyfriend, so this time she is prepared to more
actively defend her cause.
In particular, her plan is to do everything to separate
Daniel from his doting mother Laura. Poor, rich Laura was at first eager to
become friends with the new girlfriend of her wonderful son, inviting them
to spend some time at the family villa in Saint-Tropez. She is puzzled by
the fact that one thing and another goes wrong and Daniel becomes more and
The book is a real page-turner, leading to
catastrophe. Who will win, Cherry or Laura? This is not a book for the
judges of the Booker Prize who would undoubtedly turn their noses up at the
whole thing. Too enjoyable.
by Jane Harper
The story takes place in a small,
fictitious Australian town, about a five hour drive from Melbourne. It
hasn't rained for two years. (Melbourne, by contrast, experiences lots of
drizzly rain throughout the year.) A family has been murdered in their
farmhouse, blasted with a shotgun. The father is found a few kilometers
away, holding a gun, his head shot away, apparently suicide. The drought has
left many people in the town on the verge of bankruptcy. Has he killed his
family because of desperation? We follow the story from the viewpoint of
Aaron Falk, who is now a police commissioner in Melbourne, but who fled the
town with his father twenty years ago in connection with the unresolved
death of a schoolgirl.
This was also a book which I couldn't put down, reading
on to find out what happens next. It's a complicated story with a plot which
twists and turns. We see a small Australian country town torn apart by
hatred. Does this exist? I suppose it must. Evil, unpleasant people can be
found in all sorts of situations. But happily, I only experienced friendly,
pleasant people in Australia.
Toward the end of the story, in a decisive scene, we have
a group of people chasing someone else through bushland so thick that it was
difficult to move through it. When confronted, the pursued man threatens to
drop a lighter on the ground which would immediately cause all of the
bone-dry wood, bark, leaves and everything to explode in a catastrophic
inferno which would also burn up the whole town and everybody in it.
Well, OK. But I find this idea difficult to
imagine. If that country was subject to such long droughts then how could
such dense bushland have developed in the first place? And if it were in
such a dangerous state, just waiting to explode, why hadn't it done so long
The indigenous peoples of Australia regularly lit fires
to burn off the accumulated dead material. So did the Indians of the Great
Plains of the United States - thus creating the Great Plains. But modern
society, with its emphasis on private property, has declared fire to be an
evil. After all, nobody wants their private house to burn down. Thus people
"fight" bushfires with everything they can: airplanes and helicopters
dumping water; firefighters going in with firetrucks, creating back burns,
plowing corridors of bare dirt. Not only man-made fires are fought. Those
caused by the lightning strokes of thunderstorms are declared to be equally
evil. The result is an unnatural imbalance which, in the end, makes fires in
such regions much worse than they would otherwise be.
Toms River is a town in southern New
Jersey, on Barnegat Bay. When my father retired in 1962, he thought it would
be nice to have a marina near to where we had a summer house at Loveladies
on Long Beach Island. And so, at considerable expense, a simple lagoon near
the town of Barnegat, just south of Toms River, was turned into a marina
named the "Barnegat Marina", with creosoted planking lining the lagoon,
thick wooden pylons to provide the slips for about 40 boats, a house for us
to live in, and a large boathouse near the road. For various reasons our
family sold it in 1965, and we moved to Australia, the country of my mother.
Looking at things as they are now, using GoogleEarth, I see that the marina
still exists. It is called "Bob's
I remember occasionally going to the library in Toms
River to get something to read. And we often drove along the Garden State
Parkway, past Toms River, towards Newark where my father used to work, and
Summit, where the family used to live. From there, driving in to New York on
the New Jersey Turnpike, the air was filled with noxious fumes from all the
industry - Standard Oil of New Jersey, which was nammed ESSO in those days.
And I remember a large building near Summit which announced itself as the
headquarters of CIBA. That seemed to me to be a very strange name. I think
my father told me that it was a European company. Pharmaceuticals. But more
to the south, certainly south of Asbury Park, New Jersey appeared to live up
to its name: The Garden State.
You would never know that CIBA had hidden a huge chemical
plant in the pine woods behind Toms River. They made plastics and paint.
Reading this book has taught me many things which I
hadn't known before. It seems that over half of whatever it is that is put
into these chemical processes at the beginning comes out at the end as an
undefined, stinking, poisonous, gooey mess which must be disposed of.
Factories used to just dump it on the ground, and the workers would hold
their noses while passing by. According to the book, it is possible to heat
it up to 700°C, thus breaking down the molecules into simpler things: water,
CO2, SO2, and so on. No longer organic molecules. I'm no chemist, so you can
take this with a grain of salt. Anyway, heating it like that would be more
expensive than dumping it, thus decreasing the shareholder value of CIBA and
all those other companies. So, as I understand the situation these days, the
mess is now shipped off to Africa or Asia, where people are prepared to have
it dumped on their land in exchange for a small fee.
The whole thing started off about 150 years ago in
England. Coal was heated in the absence of oxygen to make coke, which when
burned gives very high temperatures for smelting iron, and the gas released
from the coal was piped around the cities to give gas lighting, cooking,
heating. But there was a residue left over - coal tar. The oily part of that
can be painted on wood to preserve it - the creosote
on the wood of the Barnegat Marina.
People were also looking for some more profitable uses
for coal tar, and a chemist in London, by pure chance, discovered a way to
use it to make a very striking, colorful dye for textiles. Soon other people
found similar processes, giving different colors. This transformed the way
we look. In earlier times people wore drab, grayish brown clothes, but
now people walk around in all sorts of colorful clothing, often with
striking patterns in loud, contrasting colors. One of the early centers of
this new chemical industry was the Swiss city of Basel. And I have now
finally discovered what "CIBA" stands for. It is: Die Gesellschaft für Chemische
Industrie in BAsel.
The old city of Basel is a wonderful place. Its
university was founded in 1459. Many famous people have lived there. A great
climate, not far from the Alps. A couple of years ago we bicycled from Basel
northwards along the Rhine to Freiburg, then across the Black Forrest to the
source of the Danube. When cycling out of Basel you pass the huge buildings
of Novartis and various other such companies. Novartis is the fusion of
CIBA, which, after Toms River had to change its name, and Sandoz, which
scandalized people 20 or 30 years ago by accidentally dumping some strongly
colored chemicals into the Rhine. But the buildings of Novartis today look
very clean behind their massive fences.
Further up along the Rhine there is BASF, the largest
chemical company in the world, and Bayer, and all sorts of other such
companies. All of them used to simply dump their wastes into the river.
Then, about a hundred years ago, CIBA established its American division in
Cincinnati, on the Ohio River. Another good place with a fast-flowing river
to dump things into. Lots of other chemical companies - DuPont, Dow... had
the same idea. It was all about artificial dyes, and then later plastics.
People used to think that pollution was just part of modern life. The smell
of northern New Jersey was the smell of prosperity.
Fortunately attitudes changed. Polluting factories risked
heavy fines. And so CIBA moved from Cincinnati to the large site behind Toms
River in the pine barrens of New Jersey in the 1950s, where they could dump
their chemical sludge in secret.
Unfortunately the ground there is sandy, and the
groundwater flows freely, generally towards the south and the east. And it
was not just CIBA. In an absurd little episode in 1971, for $40/month (which
was never paid), the Reich family rented a field on their farm to a small
contractor who transported thousands of drums of chemical sludge from the
Union Carbide plant in northern New Jersey. The drums were thrown about,
they broke open, were bulldozed and generally made a mess of. Everything
sinking into the groundwater. I suppose the plume of poison has still not
reached the township of Barnegat. And then there is the atomic power plant
at Oyster Creek, which is the oldest operating commercial nuclear power
plant in the United States. It started operating in 1969. And it is even
closer to our old marina than Toms River.
Reading the book, we are astonished at how easily these
companies simply dumped things, as if there was no tomorrow. They fought
tooth and nail, year in, year out, to avoid having to spend a few thousand
dollars to do things more properly. And what happened in the end when the
people found out about it?
Cleaning up the mess - as far as that was possible (and
it mostly isn't possible) - legal fees, settlements. All that has cost CIBA
many, many millions of dollars. It is no wonder that the drugs which
Novartis now patents and makes are sold for such exorbitant prices these
The book tells us much about how people try to prove that
various kinds of pollutants cause sickness, especially cancer. Obviously
many of the workers at CIBA, and at all sorts of other companies as well,
got cancer, and continue to get cancer. But then you can say, maybe they
smoked cigarettes? or ate lots of bacon? or sugar? or breathed diesel fumes?
Who knows? People can try poisoning rats with chemicals to prove one thing
or another, which can then be brought into question by various teams of
lawyers or scientists.
But the best thing to get people worked up into a state
of hysteria is to talk about the sicknesses of little children. Forget all
the workers who have suffered.
Something like 10 to 20 cases of childhood cancer occur
each year for every hundred thousand children in the United States. Yes,
each of these is really a tragedy. It is a blessing to have healthy
children, but a corresponding catastrophe, which I can hardly imagine, to
have a child with cancer. In a town like Toms River, that rate of childhood
cancer translates to a couple of cases. In the time the water supply was
perhaps poisoned, there were a couple more cases than usual. And so the book
goes on and on, often in repetitive detail, about the complicated legal and
scientific sides of things, the emotional parents, the suffering children.
It became a huge story in the media. In the end, the government spent tens
of millions of dollars on scientific studies, legal fees. Novartis, Union
Carbide, and the Toms River water suppliers agreed to a settlement, giving
varying amounts of a few hundred thousand dollars to each of the families
having a child with cancer, and the families squabbled about the
distribution of this money.
After reading about all of these chemicals in artificial
dyes, I wonder how safe they really are? We are told that their brilliance
and the fact that they don't fade is due to the strength of the bonds they
make with textiles. It is said that perhaps they are so active that they
might enter our cells, inserting themselves between segments of our DNA,
causing mutations. Or perhaps not, depending on who is giving the opinion.
Is it true that the general level of cancer today is
higher than in earlier times, even when such effects as smoking or the
general ageing of the population and all the rest is filtered out of the
statistics? If so, could it be, at least to some extent, due to all the
artificial dyes in our clothes? One way or another, it is surely a good idea
to wash new clothes thoroughly before wearing them for the first time.
Last year we got a small, inflatable swimming pool so
that the grandchildren might splash about in the garden on hot summer days.
It was made in China, as all these cheap things are these days. When
inflating it, it felt strange on my skin, and I made the mistake of trying
to blow in a few breaths. My lips had a burning sensation, and they swelled
up somewhat. So I threw it away in the garbage. It was not buried in the
ground in some sort of landfill. The city of Bielefeld incinerates the
garbage in a large factory at temperatures which certainly exceed 700°C. The
resulting fumes are passed through a long sequence of filters. So it was
well and truly gotten rid of. But I sympathize with all those Chinese people
who are dealing with this stuff. They and their children must be suffering
from all sorts of cancers.
Boy, by Tracy Chevalier
This is another one of those novels
commissioned as a modern-day retelling of a Shakespeare play, in this case
Othello. The story takes place on the playground of a primary school in the
pampered suburbs of Washington D.C. in the 1970s. The author tells us that
she grew up in such a place, so we presume that she knows what goes on in
Othello becomes Osei, a young African boy from Ghana
whose father is a diplomat who has been stationed in the United States. Osei
has had to become the New Boy in various primary schools in Paris, London,
New York, and now Washington. Being the outsider is no fun, and being an
African in a land dominated by people of European ancestry is also no fun.
Iago becomes Ian, a horrible little child. The playground
bully. And Desdemona is "Dee", the nice girl of the school. This is the
sixth, and thus last grade of school, and summer is coming on so that within
a month or two, school will be finished and the children will be going on to
junior high. Everything takes place in a single day, from the start of
school in the morning until the scene in the late afternoon when Osei kills
himself by falling off the jungle gym.
Unlike the Shakespeare play, where Othello has already
courted and married Desdemona at the beginning of things, here on the
playground everything must go much more quickly. Dee falls totally in love
with Osei; Ian poisons things with his sidekick Rod; Blanca and Casper are
an established pair, although of course it is not to be supposed that the 11
or 12 year old Blanca is to be equated with Shakespeare's courtesan - or
prostitute - Bianca.
Is it true that in the 1970s, eleven year old primary
school children were as sexually aroused as all this, claiming, or accusing
one another of going "all the way"? When reading these books I often wonder
if I am living in the same world as other people. What was Tracy Chevalier
doing when she was eleven years old?
From what little - almost nothing - that I can recall of
my experiences at primary school in the 1950s, I seem to remember only that
it was a generally boring time; not much happened. The only emotional
outburst I can remember is the time when a highly strung teacher became
exasperated about the fact that I never did my spelling homework. It was the
last straw. In a scene worthy of Shakespeare, she demanded that I come to
the front of the room. Shouting, she threw a book down on her desk so that
her papers flew through the air. And then she became tearfully hysterical,
fleeing the room and escaping to the Principal's office. As I recall, my
mother was summoned by the Principal, and she later told me that the teacher
continued crying hysterically all the while. Another teacher took over the
class, and I think that everyone was as amazed as I was about the whole
The narrator, a woman in her 30s
whose name I think was never mentioned in the novel, has separated from her
philandering, but rich husband Christopher, who is older, perhaps getting on
to 50. He left their apartment months ago, hasn't been seen since, and she
has gotten together with Yvan, who was a good friend of Christopher. But
apart from Yvan, she has told no one about the separation.
She receives a call from Isabella, Christopher's mother,
asking where he is. It turns out his last known location was in a luxury
hotel in the town of Gerolimenas on the Mani Peninsula of Greece.
Investigating things via Google Maps, and considering the fact that
Gerolimenas is a small town, I suppose this must be the Kyrimali
Hotel. And so Isabella arranges for the narrator to travel there, stay
at the hotel, and find out what has happened to Christopher. But he is not
there. He left a few days ago, somewhere, perhaps researching things for his
proposed book on professional Greek women mourners. More probably having
multiple affairs with the various maidens of Southern Greece. In fact it
already appears that he has had a fling with Maria, a hostess of the hotel.
While idly looking for a way to fill the time waiting for Christopher, she
hires a taxi to take her about the place, such as it is, and thus she gets
to know the driver, Stefano, who is in love with Maria, a love which is not
We think about this whole situation from all its angles.
It is decided that when Christopher finally shows up, he will be asked for a
divorce to end the whole business cleanly. There is no more emotional
attachment to Christopher. No feeling of jealousy whatsoever with respect to
Maria. The whole thing is meaningless.
And then we are told that according to rumor, Christopher
has been seen at some town further afield, together with another woman.
Maria is in tears. Stefano shouts angrily at Maria. But then we learn that
Christopher has been killed. He was found in a ditch by an obscure road with
his head smashed by a rock.
What complex feelings this evokes. Isabella comes on the
next plane, together with her husband who is perhaps - or perhaps not -
Christopher's father. How to share the tragedy of Christopher's death with
the parents? Suddenly there is an unwanted closeness. She is no longer free,
divorced. The separation remains a secret. She learns of an inheritance of
three million pounds. Does she want it? Is the price a life of deception,
falsity? And what of Yvan? If things had been cleanly separated through
divorce then she would have quickly married him, perhaps establishing a
family. But now?
This was a wonderful book. The best thing I've read in a
long time. Beautifully written.
And so I quickly looked for another
book by Katie Kitamura. This was her first attempt at writing a novel. But
it was a disappointment. So different from the previous book.
The story concerns Cal, a fighter of mixed martial arts,
or MMA, and
his trainer, Riley. We meet them traveling along a Californian freeway to
Tijuana where Cal is to fight his great rival, Rivera, who is apparently a
Mexican, or at least a Latin American. They stay in a cheap motel; workout
alone in a gym; Cal goes for some early morning runs. Gradually they realize
that Rivera will be too much for Cal. Despite this, the fight goes ahead,
Cal gets terribly beaten, but he remains standing; he retains the honor of
being the only person who had not been knocked out by Rivera. Yet at the
end, Cal's injuries are so grave that we are left to wonder whether he will
survive or die in Riley's arms. Throughout the book the sentences are short,
declarative. We think of Hemingway, or that book about boxing by Norman
Mailer. But it is not as convincing as any of that.
In an interview, the author tells us that she has had a
great interest in MMA, attending many fights, not only in the United States
and Japan, getting to know various fighters, writing about them. But many
details in the book do not ring true. For example Riley suddenly learns that
Rivera has established an expensive MMA training facility in San Diego where
he has been training the next generation of champion fighters. - How could
he not know of such a thing if Rivera was the great champion? He quickly
crosses the border and drives fast up to San Diego in a half hour to see a
show put on by Rivera's people in front of hundreds of journalists, all of
whom knew everything about Rivera's training center. During this drive, he
appears to have spent no time at all in the formalities at the border with
Tijuana. And then during the fight, we hear much about Cal or Rivera
bouncing off, or holding onto, the ropes around the ring.
In contrast to Katie Kitamura, I claim nothing but
complete ignorance when it comes to the subject of mixed martial arts. But
from what I have gathered by looking things up in the Wikipedia and looking
at a couple of YouTube videos, it seems that this business is not conducted
in a roped-in ring as in the case of boxing, but rather in a kind of wire
cage. It all seems quite brutal. The fighters kick one another in the head,
even when they are on the ground. Elbow and knee punches are usual.
I have occasionally watched the few boxing matches which
have been broadcast on TV. I know it is a ridiculous spectacle, seeing who
will be knocked senseless. But still, there is an excitement to it. I can
remember breathlessly listening on the radio - it must be nearly 50 years
ago now - to the first match between Cassius Clay (as he was then called)
and Sony Liston. The young underdog emerged victorious as the greatest
fighter in the world. Despite its appeal to the basest forms of human
interest, still, one had the feeling that it retained a modicum of
respectability. In boxing, blows with the elbows, the legs, are forbidden,
as are kicking the opponent when he is down or falling on him with a knee
into the neck...
But I have read that in reality, boxing is more
dangerous than MMA. All those heavy punches to the head with thick, padded
boxing gloves destroy the brain more quickly and thoroughly than do punches
with the light gloves in MMA where the fighter will break his hand if he
punches too hard. And as with bare-knuckle fighting, it is generally over
quickly, since the injuries come quickly and they are very obvious.
While MMA is a new sport which until recently was almost
everywhere illegal due to its brutality, fans of the sport, such as Katie
Kitamura, might point out that it belongs to an ancient tradition, beginning
at least with the pankration
in ancient Greece and proceeding through the Roman gladiatorial "games", and
onward throughout the history of human aggression and brutality. But this is
not really a subject which is of much interest to me.
I found a list of the 100 greatest
books, in the Guardian, listing them in their order of publication. Of
course the list was restricted to books written in the English language. And
they seemed to be chosen especially in order to reflect the reading
preferences of English readers. I thought this one might be interesting, so
I downloaded it from Project Gutenberg.
It was published in 1915, a spy story. The evil Germans
are incredibly sly, efficient, deceptive. For example in one scene, the
British War Cabinet meets to discuss things. The Minister of War, or
something, is present and takes part in discussing all the top secrets. But
our Hero in the book discovers the fact that the real Minister of War is
ill, staying at home. This false Minister of War is a German spy in
disguise, deceiving all of the other ministers who are unable to recognize
their fellow minister, his face, his way of speaking. Would such a feat be
possible? It seems to me rather far-fetched. And the story was filled with
many further such far-fetched feats and ridiculous coincidences.
Still, it was an amusing story which I enjoyed reading.
There is almost a feeling of nostalgia for the naive innocence of those
times, despite the fact that it led to all the catastrophes of the 20th
This is one of those Scandinavian
"thrillers" or crime novels, where we are most interested in the
personalities of the various policemen (and especially policewomen) involved
in solving the crime.
It's the first book of this genera which I've read. I
used to enjoy watching the Swedish series with Commissioner Beck on TV. Then
there was Wallander, another Swedish police series which went on for many
episodes. The whole thing became a bit silly when the Shakespearean actor,
Kenneth Branagh, started playing the role in an over-exaggerated way. Then
there was a Danish TV series telling a long, coherent story, with a warm,
compassionate woman playing the role of the policewoman in charge of things,
investigating a series of most horribly brutal crimes. Another one which I
started watching was The Bridge, which was even more brutal. At that point I
gave up watching these things, and in fact I've almost completely given up
But I saw this book, and I was vaguely curious.
Apparently these Scandinavian TV dramas are all based on these Scandinavian
crime novels. The author of the present book is Norwegian. In addition to
writing lots of thrillers, making millions since - besides me - millions of
people buy them, and they are translated into scores of languages, he is
also a successful rock musician and a rock climber. According to his
entry in the Wikipedia, he has climbed routes up to the French
grade 7c. That is to say, he is really extremely good. Equal to the
best rock climbers in the world at the peak of their abilities, climbing at
the limit of what is possible. What a successful person!
I wish I could say that this book is up to the level of
the French grade 7c. It is true that the number of bizarre, nightmarish,
disgusting murders, tortures, psychotic episodes in the book - if that is
the criterion for our ranking - is well worth a 7c grade. And I suppose it
is, given the millions of people who have bought it in all those different
cultures and languages. For now I have had enough of this. But maybe in the
future I might get in the mood to read another one of Nesbo's books.
A while ago I read an article in the
Guardian saying that Dustin Hoffman was not really the best actor to play
The Graduate in the movie. According to the article, the book was not the
sort of Jewish coming-of-age story of the movie; rather it was a satire on
the WASPish world of suburban America. But having now read the book, I can
appreciate the movie even more.
In the story we have Benjamin Braddock returning from
college on the East Coast to his parents home in suburban LA. He was a great
runner on the school's track team, editor of the school paper, led the
debating society, achieved outstanding grades in all his courses, was
awarded a famous prize leading to graduate studies in either Yale or
Harvard, and in any case he was offered teaching assistant positions in
various other colleges.
OK. So I'm trying to picture him in all his glory and
success. The picture I see is something like that great Norwegian success
story, Jo Nesbo, of the previous book. But how is it that after expending
all that energy in such a successful university degree, he suddenly comes
home as an emotional vacuum? Could we explain this as being similar to those
Peace Corps volunteers of the 1960s who immersed themselves in the starving
masses of Africa or Asia, only to be culturally shocked on their return to
the United States? Maybe. But it doesn't seem to me to be very plausible.
When I was studying for my degree I noticed one or two of my fellow students
who, unlike me, received the top marks and the highest honors; but then, for
one reason or another, in later studies or professions, they did not live up
to their great expectations. But they were totally unlike Benjamin Braddock.
Before buying the book on my Kindle I looked at some of
the reviews written in by previous Amazon readers. Many gave only one star.
And reading some of these one star reviews, I saw that most were written by
young people, probably high school pupils who had to read the book for their
English classes. They hated it. Given their situation, I would probably have
hated it as well. Imagine getting into bed with the wife of your father's
business partner! My father was well into his 40s when I was born, so when I
became 21, as Benjamin Braddock did, my father's business partner would have
been well into his 60s, if not 70s. I can't remember if I ever met his wife,
she would hardly have corresponded with the Anne Bancroft of the movie, but
I do remember that the business partner had died of a self-inflicted,
perhaps accidental, shotgun wound well before that time. I do vaguely
remember the son and daughter, but they were much older than me. Still, when
reading the book I was filled with the remembrance of the wonderful music of
Simon and Garfunkel, and the scenes of driving through California in an
Alpha Romeo Spider.
A nicely written book, but filled
with unpleasant characters. Gil Coleman was a middle-aged professor of
literature in some English university, full of himself, intimidating the
students with aggressive talk. And so, of course, they loved him,
particularly the female students. He slept with as many of them as he could.
In particular Ingrid, who became pregnant, thus causing her to be
exmatriculated and Coleman to be sacked despite the fact that he had tenure.
(Is this believable in the England of the 1970s or 80s?) They marry. He
talks of love, romance. They move to a small house somewhere near the beach
which he has inherited, far from London, Oxford, or whatever. There is
hardly any money. He tries working at the local pub but is fired for
drunkenness. The family must skimp, often subsisting on the charity of
neighbors. Ingrid bears two daughters, Nan and Flora. Gil spends the nights
in his "writing house" down in the garden. It must be one of those gypsy
wagons which are found in some English gardens. Ingrid and the children are
not allowed to look in, it is taboo. He is writing his great novel which
will be famous and solve all the money problems. But in reality he locks
himself in his writing house each night to have sex with all the various
women who, for some unexplained reason, find him to be attractive.
He does also find some time to have sex with Ingrid, and,
somewhat in the style of Scheherazade, she tells him dirty stories on the
nights when he is with her. And so he writes down these stories, making a
pornographic book out of it and becoming a celebrated, famous author, feted
in all the newspapers and TV programs of England. All of this is too much
for Ingrid. She disappears, perhaps drowning herself off the local beach?
And so the story of the book takes place years later.
Flora is now in her early 20s, having a casual but torrid affair with
Richard, someone who happens to work in a second-hand bookshop. Flora
worships her father, unaware of his true nature. The chapters alternate. We
have the story of Gil, who has now become a sick, degenerate old man, dying
of cancer; and then we have the letters Ingrid wrote to Gil all those years
ago, just before she disappeared. Rather than giving them to Gil, or posting
them, she has hidden them in between the pages of various books which are
lying about the house.
The house is filled with thousands of books. They are
overflowing everywhere. Gil has accumulated them from second-hand bookshops
over the years, not to read, but rather because he was amused by the
scribbles, or slips of papers previous owners left in them.
I was reminded of relatives of mine who were professors
at an English university and whose house was similarly overflowing with
books. Thousands and thousands of them. The bookshelves were packed full.
Books were piled up along the walls, tumbling down the stairs. While I
visited, new books were acquired each day or two, and they were read. Out of
curiosity I tried testing my relatives, picking some dusty book out of a
bookcase, an old science fiction paperback. Trivial pulp fiction. And I was
immediately given a summary of the plot. Such a contrast between real
professors and the absurd character of this novel.
The story of Siegfried Sassoon is
that he was a war poet of the First World War. In 1917 he circulated a
letter of protest about the conduct of the war, but then he rejoined the
troops where he was accidentally shot by friendly fire, receiving a flesh
wound to the head. He survived and then lived on into old age, writing a
couple of books and more poems. I did read his Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting
Man some time ago, and of course a few of his war poems. He seemed to
be a brave, defiant young man. But although he lived on, we only really
think of him in connection with the war. Unlike say, Robert Graves, who
wrote many books and had a long and distinguished career after the war,
Sassoon remains a war poet.
This book gives us a new story, in the form of an
historical novel, but telling us the true story of what really happened. The
author, by chance, through his marriage to his Welsh wife in 1960, got to
know the old veterans of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, which was Sassoon's
regiment. One of them was the man who shot Siegfried Sassoon. It is a
compelling story. No accident. And afterwards that man (almost) never spoke
again, isolated, embittered, living the rest of his life in a hospital for
mentally deranged veterans.
Sassoon came from a family of great wealth and
privilege. The Sassoon's
were considered to be the Rothschild's of the East. Siegfried grew up in
comfort on the family estate, going on to Cambridge, which he quit before
taking a degree. His ambition was to become a famous poet. He was 27 when
the Great War started, living at home, riding out after foxes, playing
cricket, golf, trying to find things to write poetry about.
He did have a couple of collections of poetry "privately"
published. That is to say, he paid some publishers in the "vanity press" a
great deal of money to typeset, print and bind a few copies of the resulting
books of poetry which, subsequently, nobody was particularly interested in
reading. Does anybody these days have such a burning ambition to be a poet?
The vanity press has become much cheaper. You can just start your own
website, as here, practically for free. And there are machines which, when
fed a text - I suppose in pdf form - churn out a given number of paperback
books automatically, without further human intervention, for a reasonable
fee. And then of course there are these poetry "slams", whatever they are,
and even hip-hop, rhyming "musical" chanting, for whatever it is worth.
But back in 1914, the young Siegfried saw his chance to
become a famous war poet, and so he enlisted immediately, hoping to get into
the action as soon as possible. After a false start he became an officer in
the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and made it to France. We imagine the horror of
trench warfare. Existing for year after year in the mud and filth, subjected
to continuous bombardment, sniper fire, and so on. But this
article from the BBC magazine gives a somewhat different picture. And
as for Sassoon, we learn that from the time when he first stepped into the
trenches in 1914 to the time of his "Soldiers Declaration" in 1917, he had,
in fact, spent a grand total of 3 weeks in the front line trenches. That
included longish periods of leave in London when he befriended various
literary types, promoting his poetry, and also a 9 month period when he
claimed to be suffering from dysentery.
But during those three weeks, he certainly seems to have
been as blood-thirsty as the best of them, keen to kill as many "Huns" as
possible. He was awarded a Military Cross for walking across no-mans-land,
unarmed, in full view of the "Hun", to save a wounded man, trusting that the
"Huns" who were pointing their guns at him would refrain from pulling their
triggers. On the other hand, his greatest feat was to single handedly blow
up a machine-gun nest with grenades, then jump into the German trenches,
lobbing a few more grenades, scattering the enemy soldiers. If he had left
it at that, returning to his own lines to report his success, he would
undoubtedly have received a Victoria Cross. But instead, he frustrated the
plan of battle, sitting down in a corner of the German trench to wait and
see if he might kill a few more Huns, calmly taking a book of poetry from
his pocket and reading in it for a few hours. Thus, for fear of killing
possible English soldiers, the advance was halted, and Sassoon received
nothing more than the anger of his commanding officers.
Apart from these episodes, the time in France was spent
turning out reams of poetry, marching about on military exercises with his
men, being together with his good friend, Robert Graves, and sampling the
cuisine in the various French restaurants near the front.
The common soldiers in his platoon did not fair so well.
At the time of his "Soldiers Declaration", only three of the original
members were still present: the sergeant who in later years told the story
of this book to the author, and the twins, Rhys and Davey Jones. The twins
had signed up in 1914, under-aged, at only 16. Davey was autistic and
totally out of place in the army. Rhys had promised that they would stick
together and he would bring Davey home safely. They had survived terrible
actions at the beginning of the war, going "over the top" into machine gun
When Sassoon arrived, he appointed Davey to be his
"runner", taking messages back and forth. While being apparently mentally
retarded, Davey had the talent to memorize lists of rhyming words, and he
could instantly invent primitive limericks. Sassoon was delighted, and
became close friends with Davey, often laughing together at his dirty
rhymes. Others, and especially Rhys, were scandalized. But for Davey,
Sassoon was a great poet, and so he copied out in his own notebooks all of
Sassoon's poetry, including the "private" poetry which Sassoon wrote, not
for publication, criticizing the war and its conduct.
The drama ran its course when Sassoon was away in London
in 1917 with his literary friends where he was persuaded, especially by
Bertrand Russell, to publish an anti-war protest. Sassoon was proud of his
writing and sent copies to everyone he could think of, including his
commanding officers. They, also Robert Graves, and many others were shocked.
After all, what he had written was, for a serving officer in time of war, an
offense worthy of a court martial, even a firing squad. And so his highly
placed friends with their connections to parliament and the war ministry saw
to it that Sassoon was declared to be temporarily insane, and he was sent to
a hospital in Scotland for those suffering from shell-shock, where he spent
his time practicing golf and entertaining his friends in the restaurants of
Unfortunately he had also sent Davey a copy of his
declaration, together with a request that it be posted on the noticeboard of
the company. Poor, simple-minded Davey followed the orders of his good
friend, and was immediately arrested for sedition. And for that he was
executed by firing squad to set an example. All of the officers in the
regiment hated the thought of Siegfried Sassoon. After Sassoon was declared
to be no longer "shell shocked", he learned of Davey's fate, and so a
feeling of guilt made him desire death himself. He eventually returned to
his old platoon, and in the night, returning from no-mans-land, he stood for
a long moment before Rhys, a clear target, expecting to be shot. But Rhys
only managed to hit him with a glancing bullet to the head.
And that is the true story of Siegfried Sassoon who seems
to have been a man who was remarkably ignorant of the consequences of his
actions. Perhaps this is something which is common amongst those who grow up
in circumstances of great privilege.
A Japanese "middle school", between
primary school, which I suppose must take children from 6 to 10 years, and
high school for the 15 to 18s. We read that even in middle school, the
children are sent during the evenings to "cram school" where they are
required to memorize lots of nonsense in order to pass the exams to get into
a good high school. Then in high school there are the appropriate cram
schools to memorize further nonsense in order to try to get into the
university of choice. Thus, we suspect, there is much tension, suppressed
aggression, lurking beneath the surface.
The story of this book seems at first to be crazy. Such
It is the final year of the middle school. The unmarried
woman teacher has a small daughter. One of the pupils imagines himself to be
superior to everybody else, but in reality he is seeking the love of his
mother who left him with his father in order to pursue her career as a
professor of electricity at some university or other. Thus, seemingly
absurdly, in order to attract the attention of the mother, he decides to
kill the teacher's daughter with an electrical device he has built which
delivers a severe electrical shock. It doesn't quite work. The daughter is
knocked senseless, but she is still breathing. Another boy is also present,
and in order to show what a great fellow he is, he drags the unconscious
daughter to the nearby swimming pool and dumps her in, face down, to drown.
And so the book proceeds from chapter to chapter,
describing the whole business and its consequences from the perspective of
each of the boys, one of the mothers, a girl, and the teacher who is looking
for revenge. She knows that in the modern world, children below the age of
something or other can do anything, commit murder, and get away scot-free,
since children are taken to be pure, innocent beings, as yet untarnished by
the sins of the rest of us. Thus she accepts the verdict of the police that
the death of her daughter was an accident, therefore allowing her to take
her private revenge.
Her first idea is to trick the two boys into drinking
some of the blood of the father of her daughter, who has AIDS, by putting
some of it into their milk cartons, and afterwards, when all the children
have finished drinking their milk, telling the whole class what she had
done. This drives the second boy mad, and he ends up killing his mother and
being assigned to a life of psychiatric confinement. But the boy who made
the electrical device knows that AIDS is not so easily contracted. He
continues happily along.
(Note: Ten or fifteen years ago I became aware of the
fact that some people disputed the hypothesis that HIV even exists. They
include such reputable people as the Nobel Prize winner, Kary
Mullis, who invented the polymerase chain reaction. I found their
arguments, particularly as expressed by Peter
Duesberg, to be convincing. Reading this book, with its description of
the seeming hysteria which fills the minds of these Japanese people when
they think about AIDS, led me to click once again, after all these years,
into the website of the Perth Group
to see if anything new has come up. It hasn't.)
To return to the story, the boy finally decides to
construct a bomb to be placed under the stage of the school and exploded
during the graduation ceremony. It is triggered using a mobile telephone
which he has inserted into the mechanism so that it will explode when he
dials its number using his own mobile telephone. The teacher finds out about
this and puts the bomb in the university laboratory of the beloved mother of
the boy so that when he dials the number, the mother and the rest of the
laboratory is blown to smithereens. What a strange story.
The scene is the morning of
"Mothering Sunday", the 30th of March 1924. A man and a woman lie together,
naked on a bed. It is an unusually warm day. The sun is shining in through
the open windows. It is a large house in the middle of its extensive
The woman is Jane Fairchild, the young maid from the
estate of another family a mile or so away. She was an orphan, given away
just after her birth. The date of her birth and her original name, if she
even had one, is unknown. But she is a fair child, with no mother. The young
man is Paul Sheringham, and they are in his bedroom. Everyone else is away
visiting their mothers, or else celebrating in restaurants or on picnics.
Paul is engaged to be married two weeks from now to Emma, a young lady from
a rich family. And indeed, he has an appointment to meet her at 2 o'clock at
a restaurant for luncheon.
The story goes on and on in a dream-like way, describing
the scene and all its meanings and consequences, and the tragedy to which it
leads. And then often we are transported 60 or 70 years into the future
where Jane has become a famous novelist, and we think of her answers to the
questions of people who have interviewed her. Where have her stories come
from? There are so many stories. But this one story of Mothering Day in 1924
remains her secret, shared wordlessly with Ethel, the Sheringham's maid. A
beautifully written book.
In her reminiscences, Jane thinks about the fact that she
spent a sleepless night after that day, reading Joseph Conrad's Youth
in order to distract her mind. And so I read it too, imagining what Jane
must have felt.
The story begins with an English
couple, David and Jo, arriving in Morocco on a ferry from Spain. They had
flown down from London, taken the ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar,
rented a car with the plan of driving in the evening and through the night
to an extended weekend party taking place near the town of Errachidia, which
is a couple of hundred kilometers inland, over near the border with Algeria.
David is a medical doctor, a surgeon. A recent case went badly and he was
sued heavily. Both he and Jo are heavy drinkers. They argue the whole time.
The party is being put on by Richard, an old school
friend of David, but Richard is now extremely rich. I suppose some internet
business, worth hundreds of millions, if not billions. And so he lives in
various extravagant houses in London, New York, and also in the desert of
Morocco where he puts on elaborate society happenings together with his
homosexual partner who is also an internet billionaire, or something.
Richard and partner are following the tradition of earlier homosexuals who
found satisfaction in Morocco, or Algeria. Probably similar to the
degenerate heterosexual males who find satisfaction in Thailand. In any
case, with all their riches, they employ a whole village of Moroccan people
as servants on their estate, and they imagine that they get along well with
them. Most of the guests at the present happening are very rich themselves,
either coming in their own luxury SUVs, or even being flown in by
helicopter. David and Jo are a bit out of things by this measure.
In the night, driving to the party, half drunk, afraid of
the possible dangers inherent in all these strange Arabs, or Berbers, or
something, suddenly an Arab stands in the middle of the road, waving a sign.
And David drives the car into him, killing the young Arab.
They put the dead body in the back, and well past
midnight finally arrive at the party. The body is put in the vast garages of
the estate where there is air conditioning to keep it from decomposing too
rapidly in all the heat.
The party goes on. 50 or more guests. All doing their
degenerate things. The most exquisite, finest, rarest tidbits are served by
the silent, observing staff. All sorts of alcohol flows freely; cannabis,
cocaine, is smoked or sniffed. The servants see everything, and especially
the dead body in the garage. The local Moroccan police are summoned, and
come in the middle of the night. Perhaps it was just an accident. Was David
to blame? They leave. After all, Richard has the situation under control.
Then the next morning, in a cloud of dust, an old beat-up
Toyota turns up. It is the fierce-looking father of the young man who was
killed, together with two or three other men from his village, somewhere off
to the south in the desert. What do they want? Certainly the body to bury,
but also money? Revenge? They say that they want David to come with them,
alone, to take part in the funeral and so to atone for his guilt. Richard
tells David to just go with them, take all the money he has and then give it
So they set off, the old man, the father, silent, driving
fast, angrily. He would like to kill this infidel to avenge the loss of his
only son. That would be the only way to restore honor. David gradually
realizes his danger. But he is not afraid. He feels sorry for the whole
thing, the poverty of the people. He sees how they live, digging fossils out
of the desert to sell to dealers, barely making a living. The Arabs hate the
fossils, ungodly monsters of a time before Allah.
Jo doesn't know what to think, but in the end,
Richard convinces her to drink up, sniff cocaine, and she casually goes to
bed with one of the other guests.
David survives the Arab village and is returned, a
sobered man. All the other characters in the story behave badly, even
horribly. We learn that the young Arab which David had killed had been a
migrant to Europe, where he casually killed an old woman in order to rob her
of a small amount of money. His motivation in standing out in the road was
to stop David and Jo's car, then to shoot them with a pistol in order to rob
them, those infidels.
I will not reveal the final twist of the story. But in
the end, even Richard begins to wonder how safe he is in the wilds of inner
Morocco, with all his riches, an infidel surrounded by believers.
And again the story is about wealthy Europeans and
desperate Arabs. Naomi Codrington is 25 and she is unhappily living with
her father, Jimmy, a somewhat shady, but very wealthy Englishman and her
stepmother, an arrogant Greek woman, on the island of Hydra, just off the
coast from the Greek mainland. We learn that there are numbers of rich
Europeans and Americans who have extravagant summer houses on Hydra, next
to the impoverished local Greek community. Naomi hates her stepmother and
all the meaningless, showy riches of the family. That summer - it must be
2015 or 16, when the Mediterranean was full of migrants - an American
family rents a house on the island, and Naomi becomes very friendly with
Samantha, the 18 year old daughter of the family. Rambling about, getting
to know one another, they find a man, hiding out on the eastern coast of
Hydra. He is obviously a Syrian, hiding from the police, hoping to move
on, probably to Germany or Sweden. His name is Faoud.
We learn lots of things about Naomi and Samantha, and
eventually also about Faoud. Naomi cooks up a scheme to help Faoud on his
way, thus doing good in contrast to the shady and unpleasant things she
associates with her father. The scheme is that she gets the maid to give
her parents tea laced with a strong sedative so that they sleep deeply,
and she should leave the door open. Then in the night, Faoud should come
to the house, take a collection of valuables, together with the father's
keys, then take the early ferry over to the mainland. There, the family's
car is parked in the parking lot. He should then drive away, across Greece
to the west coast, and then take the ferry to Italy where the family also
has a house north of Rome.
On the evening, Naomi goes over to Samantha's place,
and they both enjoy a deep, pleasant, cannabis-induced sleep. But over at
the Codrington's, things do not go according to plan. Jimmy wakes up and
surprises Faoud. It comes to violence and Jimmy and the stepmother are
killed. Faoud makes it to Italy where he is tracked down by Jimmy's secret
henchman, an old man who reminded me of Mike, the character in Breaking
Bad. But unlike Mike, things turn out badly.
Of course you can say all sorts of things about all
those migrants making their way to Europe, not only from those middle
eastern countries which have been destroyed by the United States, but
increasingly from west Africa as well. But I will restrain myself from
writing anything further on the subject here. Suffice it to say that this
was simply an enjoyable adventure story which fails to deal with the
migrant crisis in any sort of profound way.
The story begins at an obscure town on the border
between Thailand and Cambodia. Robert is an English school teacher who is
fed up with his life in rural England, having to live frugally, alone, on
his small salary. During the school holidays he travels to far-away
countries in order to try to see the world. (This reminds me of the
present-day school teachers of Germany, whose endless conversations center
on the number of exotic countries they have traveled to in their school
It seems that many Thais from Bangkok cross over into
Cambodia to gamble in the casinos there. And Robert's plan is to stake
everything he has left of his meager savings on a couple of bets in the
hope that he will win, and thus have enough money to stay on and avoid
having to return to England. And he does win about $2000. This is a lot of
money in Cambodia.
He does a bit of sightseeing, but then is befriended by
a strange American, living in a simple house on a river. They have fun
drinking, talking into the night, and gradually Robert succumbs to sleep,
only to awaken the next day, wearing the clothes of the American, without
his passport or his $2000, on a motorboat driven by a Khmer who speeks no
English, and who drops him off near Phnom Penh.
Rather than trying to contact the British Embassy,
which would send him back to his rural teaching, he decides to use the
name of the American who had cheated him, and so try to survive in
Cambodia. He offers himself as a teacher of English. A strange doctor
engages him to teach his daughter. But the daughter speaks perfectly. She
had lived for years in New York, Paris, whatever. The doctor himself had
survived the Killing Fields of Pol Pot. He knew that life is sometimes
difficult. Sometimes you have to pretend to be someone you are not. And in
Cambodia, much is not what it seems to be. The $2000 has become bewitched,
and it comes back to haunt Richard and his new girlfriend.
Again we have a dissatisfied Englishman, the son of a
vacuum cleaner salesman who has studied law, but not at Oxford or
Cambridge which, of course, would be a requirement if ones ambition is to
become a highly paid lawyer in a snobbish English law firm. Still, he
cultivates an aristocratic way of speaking and works for an established
law firm somewhere on the south coast of England, without really being a
member of the inner circle.
He has been entrusted with the financial affairs of a
rich old woman, a widow, whose mental facilities are gradually declining.
And so, seeing the opportunity, our hero has transferred most of her
wealth into a secret bank account in Hong Kong. We get to know him in
Macau where he has become addicted to gambling everything away in the
casinos. In particular, he plays baccarat.
Looking things up, I see that the rules, or rather the
order of play of baccarat, and in particular Punto Blanco Baccarat, which
is what our hero plays, is really very simple. Before reading this book I
hadn't thought about such things except, perhaps, while watching one of
those original James Bond movies where the impression is that baccarat
appears to be very elegant, complicated, accompanied by lots of technical
expressions in French. But as shown in this
YouTube video produced by a Las Vegas casino, you just put your
money on either "player" or "bank". The chances are almost even, so that
the casino only takes just over one percent on average. Thus, in
comparison with many other casino bets, baccarat is the least bad. (It is
possible to win at Blackjack by playing with a system, but that is
forbidden in the casinos.) Apparently something like 90% of all the
betting in the casinos of Macau is on baccarat. And it is not just a
Chinese thing. Baccarat is also the big game in Las Vegas.
My only experience of a casino was during a meeting of
the Australian Mathematical Society in Hobart, back in the 1970s. (Am I
repeating myself here? I've written so much that I've forgotten what I
wrote eight or ten years ago.) Anyway, in those days a casino opened in
Hobart, and so in the evening most of the people went to try it out.
Unfortunately, the rules of the house were that gentlemen were required to
wear a tie, and of course I had no tie. But the wife of my thesis
supervisor found one for me so that I was allowed to enter. I had read
that the odds were best at the dice table, and therefore I got two chips,
I think for 10 dollars, and put them, one after another on the dice,
losing both times. I found this to be a very satisfying result, proving
that gambling is nonsense. My supervisor spent long hours at Blackjack,
and then after the return to Canberra he spent weeks thinking about
possible winning strategies. A few years after that an American
mathematician published a book, detailing his deep investigation of the
game of Blackjack and describing a strategy for beating the casino.
But I find it difficult to understand the fact that
some people become addicted to gambling. It is simply a tedious,
repetitious experiment in probability theory, leading in the end to the
realization that the Law
of Large Numbers is true and that you have lost your money to the
casino. Perhaps people enjoy the atmosphere of the casino. And they must
get excited about the fact that the winnings and losings fluctuate a bit,
gradually tending towards a loss.
To get back to the book, our hero pretends to be an
elegant, aristocratic English gentleman. He calls himself Lord Doyle. He
has taken lots of money from the poor widow back in England, and so he
makes big bets in Macau. He is a "high roller". And so the staff of the
casino pretend that he is a wonderful person, pampering him with free
drinks, snacks, a private room. He takes the occasional prostitute, and
even imagines falling in love with them. But of course, in the end, he has
Back in Hong Kong, thinking of suicide, one of his
prostitutes saves him, taking him on the ferry to a house she has on a
small island. Is this love? Will our Lord Doyle settle down to a sensible
future with a caring Chinese woman?
No. He steals her money and returns to Macau where he
puts everything on a single bet. It is a "natural" - a hand which always
wins. The chances of this are only 1 to 10, or something. So he puts all
his winnings on another bet. Another natural. And again. And again. The
money doubles and redoubles something like 10 times. A gambler's fantasy,
so improbable as to verge on the impossible. All the Chinese think he has
become filled with magic spirits. He can only win. He has become rich. But
then one more play, betting everything, and it is all lost.
One thing I didn't understand was that, according to
the descriptions in the book, it sometimes seemed that our Lord Doyle was
playing against some of the other players at the baccarat table, not
directly against the casino. But all the descriptions I find in the
internet say that you only play against the casino.
Reading the last two books, I began to suspect
that they were telling us something about the life of the author, an
Englishman who travels about the world, avoiding England. Both of the
characters in those books tell us how they hate England. A dreary, wet,
cold place, filled with unpleasant people. And they escape to warmer,
tropical places to discover that life can become an adventure.
This book is not a novel. Instead Lawrence Osborne
writes about his personal experiences of life in Bangkok. At the
beginning, before he has become a successful novelist, he is rather poor
and he has come with the purpose of having his teeth done by the dentists
of Bangkok. He tells us that traveling there, staying for a few weeks in a
cheap hostel for foreigners and paying all the dentist's bills, was much
cheaper than if he had had it done in New York, where he was living at the
He doesn't tell us anything about the details of his
dentistry. Instead he describes a few of the other characters living in
the hostel. They are middle-aged, single men. Or perhaps they have escaped
their marriages. He also meets an older, retired bank manager from Perth
in Western Australia who has been living in Bangkok for some years. His
wife died years ago. The bank manager spends his time painting water
colors, trying to exactly reproduce scenes from life. He also introduces
the author to a young Thai woman, a student, who happily sleeps with these
men in exchange for some money. We are told that the bank manager, and
perhaps the others as well, keep themselves going with Viagra.
There is much philosophizing about life and its
superiority when lived according to the principles of Buddha, and
especially the Buddhism of Bangkok. We wander about the streets of
Bangkok. At one stage the author has used up all his money. He says that
he is expecting his check to arrive any day, and he seeks to borrow from
his friends. He even ventures into the bar of a hotel where, he has been
told, lonely middle-aged Japanese women hang out, hoping for an adventure
with some western man. The woman he meets speaks no English and he speaks
no Japanese, yet he goes up the elevator with her to her room. She takes a
shower while he sits on her bed, observing that her purse is lying openly
on a table. And so he quickly steals 2000 Baht (about 60 dollars) and
disappears before she emerges from the shower. A sordid little episode
which reminded me of the scene with gigolo in Jean Rhys' Good Morning,
The later chapters are more conventional. Lawrence
Osborne has now become the successful writer with enough money to cover
all expenses. (His royalties from the books I have bought in the last
couple of weeks will be enough for him to buy a round or two of drinks in
a Bangkok bar.) He again wanders the streets, telling us stories. But they
are not as interesting as the ones from his first episodes. He is now
living in a small rented house in a more exclusive part of the city. I
followed some of his wanderings via Google Street View, and I see that he
was living in a loud, hectic part of the city filled with cars, elevated
trains, huge department stores, massage parlors, masses of people on the
sidewalks. This is the last place I would go to look for Buddhist
He seeks out the men he had gotten to know during his
first visit. The bank manager has become even more fragile, limping along
on his walking stick. We wonder how far he still gets with his Viagra.
Then there is the Scottish ex-mercenary, marching about Bangkok with a
military bearing, seeking tourists to come to his lodge in the Cambodian
forests. This was the inspiration for one of the characters in Hunters
in the Dark.
In the end, the impression we get is that the author is
still a lonely man, seeking meaning somewhere.
Looking for something simple, fun, amusing to
read, I found this one which was on the bestseller list of Amazon. The
hero is a professor of computer-biology, whatever that is, at a university
in Austin Texas. He puts a few details about where he has seen one or two
animals into his computer, the computer is set into motion, it rumbles
into action, and out comes a detailed map describing everything about the
behavior of the animals.
It is the semester holidays and he is in the wilds of
Montana, doing something biological. A woman is horribly mauled and
killed; apparently a grizzly bear did it. Yet for various reasons, our
hero realizes that it must be a human being in bear disguise. And his
computer program tells him that this murderer must have killed countless
How many young women disappear in the United States
each year? Who knows? They may just leave home, off to seek a better life
in California or something. Or perhaps they are on a long hiking tour,
telling whatever friends they might have that they won't be back for a
long time. And gradually whoever might have known them forget about it.
Could it be that hundreds of them are mysteriously disappearing, being
murdered by monstrous murderers in grizzly bear costumes in Montana?
So the book lurches breathlessly along from one short
chapter to another, often telling us various obscure facts from the world
of biology, with the hero being beaten up by drug addicts, police, men in
bear costumes. Near death, but apparently surviving in the end.
Well, OK, it was a fun read.
Even today, the British refer to the uprising of
the native soldiers of India in 1857 as the Indian "mutiny". What a
strange distortion of reality! As if India was a ship, and the sailors
were refusing to obey their captain.
This book tries to capture the state of mind of the the
English in those days. In an Afterword, the author tells us that he has
based his story on the many diaries, letters, and other writings which he
was able to find from the period, often using the stories they told
directly in this novel. It was a collection of writings from various
places in India, and the name Krishnapur is a fiction, but perhaps we are
justified in imagining that it is more or less the story of the Siege
What was it like for the people living in such a siege?
It is only in the last few chapters that we are told that the people are
dying of hunger, cholera. They are almost too weak to defend themselves.
Running out of gunpowder. But in the chapters before that, we are treated
to very different scenes.
The English, together with Sikhs, loyal Indians,
Muslims, and whatnot, are all gathered together in the compound of the
Residency. The person in charge of things, who is the hero of the book,
has the title "The Collector". He does not have the title of Governor, or
Administrator, or Mayor of the town. Instead, he is the head of the branch
of the British
East India Company at Krishnapur. He is responsible for collecting
as much of the wealth of the town as possible and shipping it back to
England to be distributed as dividends to the shareholders of the company,
thus contributing further to the unbounded riches of the ruling families
But all those Sikhs, and other such people of the lower
orders, scarcely play any role in the story. It is all about the British.
Numerous tee parties, and the fact that one lady or another was not
invited. The Collector, and all the other important people, keep telling
us about the wonders of the Great
Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in London in 1851, and we hear of
the various knickknacks they happen to have bought during their visit.
There are some scenes of heroic English officers and
other gentlemen firing their canons at hoards of charging Sepoys,
slaughtering them in their hundreds at one go. And the occasional defender
is heroically stricken down. But this provides little more than an exotic
touch to the general banter of the upper classes.
The Residence at Krishnapur itself seems to have been
stocked with an incredible amount of gunpowder, despite the fact that the
local army base, with all its gunpowder, was out of town and was taken
over by the Sepoys at the beginning of the uprising. Tons of gunpowder are
used to blow up an adjoining mosque. Much more goes into a big tunneling
operation to create a huge explosion underneath the Sepoys, and of course
the cannons use up lots more. One is reminded of those scenes in the Wild
West movies of the 1940s and 50s where the hero fires his revolver 15 or
20 times in rapid succession without reloading, despite the fact that the
cylinder of his revolver only takes six cartridges.
The priest, or is it the pastor, goes on and on,
telling us about the various points of his religion. He is particularly
upset about the fact that the Crystal Palace was a monument to man's
ingenuity, and thus to a false pride, ignoring the fact that God is the
creator of everything.
There are two medical doctors, a comfortable older
doctor and the younger Dr. McNab who, we are told, is a Jewish Scott,
despite his name. In a slapstick scene, the two doctors dispute the
possible causes of cholera. The older doctor maintains that it is caused
by a miasma being carried through the foul air of the compound. Dr. McNab
tells us the true answer, correctly quoting the analysis of the 1854
Broad Street cholera outbreak by Dr. John Snow. But in order to
prove his point, the older doctor drinks a glass of the effluent which had
been discharged by one of his cholera patients. Soon afterwards he himself
dies of cholera. Still, despite this proof of the truth of Dr. McNab's
hypothesis, The Collector, and various other of the important personages,
reserve their judgement. It may have been just an unlucky coincidence.
And so while all of this is telling us lots of things
about the Victorian Age of England - perhaps instilling a sense of
nostalgia in the minds of English readers of the book - I find it
difficult to believe that this was what really occupied the minds of the
people who were under siege back in those days. But who knows? Maybe this
is a true description of the goings on in one of those towns in India
during the "mutiny".