This year (2024)

Previous years:  2023; 2022; 2021; 2020; 2019; 2018; 2017; 2016; 2015; 2014; 2013; 2012; 2011; 2010; 2009; 2008; 2007; 2006; 2005

Tan Twan Eng:
    The House of Doors
Robert Galbraith:
    Lethal White
    Troubled Blood
David Grann:
    The Wager
John Banville:
    The Lock-Up
Richard Ford:
    Be Mine
Stefan Zweig:
    Die Welt von Gestern
Michiko Aoyama:
    What You Are Looking For Is in the Library
Stefan Zweig:
    Amok: Novellen einer Leidenschaft

The House of Doors, by Tan Twan Eng

     The author is a native of Penang. His two previous books have much to do with that island and the Malaya of earlier times. W. Somerset Maugham visited Penang in 1921 and Sun Yat-sen was there in 1910. And so this story links these two characters in the imagined romance of a woman of English heritage who was also a native of Penang, married to an elegant and successful colonial figure in the legal world of that time. But she finds that her husband is, in fact, homosexual, as is W. Somerset Maugham. On the other hand there is no suggestion that Sun Yat-sen is homosexual, surrounded as he is by hoards of admiring females whose adoration he returns. In her frustration the wife finds satisfaction in the ancient House of Doors and its loving Chinese owner. Ten years later she relates all of this to the visiting W. Somerset Maugham who is seeking exotic stories to work up into plays, short stories and novels. After finishing the book I examined the Gutenberg.org page of Maugham's works, thinking that it must be derived from one of the stories that he heard about during his visit of 1921. I downloaded The Painted Veil, but soon realized that I had read that one a few years ago, and it is not concerned with either Penang or the story of this book. In fact he did write a story about a woman who shot a man dead and then claimed it was attempted rape, but in fact she was put up to it by her husband for other reasons, as related in a subplot of the present book. But I don't know if Gutenberg has that in its collection, and in any case I couldn't be bothered to look further.
    To be frank I have enjoyed reading these books of Tan Twan Eng more than the few W. Somerset Maugham books which I have read. He has a beautiful style of writing. But perhaps he could expand his horizons beyond the Malaya of a hundred years ago, interesting as that time and place undoubtedly was.
    In the book W. Somerset Maugham is continuously referred to, and spoken to, by the name "Willy". Is it true that all the old friends and lovers of W. Somerset Maugham really called him Willy? Of course his official name was William. But he chose to reduce that to "W." for some reason. Did he hate the name William? Or did he think that the name "William Maugham" sounded too common, not something worthy of a great writer. "Somerset" is certainly not a common name. And it would be awkward for his friends to say Somerset to him, such a pretentious name.
    I haven't really done the book justice in writing all of this. But you can get a feeling for the complicated and nuanced plot by reading the many reviews of the book. After all, it was longlisted for the Booker Prize last year.

Lethal White, by Robert Galbraith

     This is the fourth of the Robert Galbraith detective novels. Looking up what I had written about the first three a couple of years ago, I see that I wrote little about the different plots, to avoid spoiling it for others. After all, the main point of these detective stories is to keep the reader guessing what it is all about until the ending where everything is finally revealed. But on the other hand, J.K. Rowling, the author of all those Harry Potter books, who of course is also the author of these Robert Galbraith books, writes so well that we keep reading on and on, just enjoying the telling of the story, not really concerned about how it ends. Nevertheless, the ending of this one seemed to be so disappointing that I will write about it here. So if you want to avoid a "spoiler" then just skip over what I am now about to write.

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The story is concerned with blackmail. An English politician has done something a few years ago which was not illegal then, but it is illegal now. And so Strike and Robin puzzle about this for hundreds of pages, filled with all sorts of various happenings. Although the politician is employing them, he refuses to say what it is that he is being blackmailed about. In the end we discover that what he was doing was having some local carpenter on his estate constructing gallows to be exported to Africa so that all of those Africans could hang one another from them. Each of the gallows was sold for £40,000.
    Of course I have little knowledge of the monetary value of a gallows. The ones illustrated in the Wikipedia article might have cost something. But are Africans really incapable of constructing such things for themselves? Must they spend £40,000 for such a thing? The idea seems simply absurd.
    My only experience with gallows (I've forgotten if I have already told the story years ago in another review here) was the following: This was years before my retirement. It was a cold December morning, a Monday. The Sunday before we had had our Christmas concert, and I had had a beautiful flute solo which was still going through my head as I bicycled into the university for my lecture. The path followed along near a field on the edge of a wood. Suddenly I became aware of a body dangling from a branch of a tree next to the path with a thin rope around its neck. Everything in the body had sagged down. It was obviously completely dead and had been so for hours through the freezing night. It seemed to be a relatively young man. I kept peddling on, not wanting to have anything to do with this disgusting sight. Perhaps 100 meters further along the path a small group of people were standing, and they asked me if I had seen it. I said yes, but I had to get to my lecture. Obviously they had called the police, or whoever else was responsible for dead bodies hanging from trees. Two hours later, after the lecture, riding back, there was no trace of the body or of anything else. It was as if it had never happened. But the thing was that this man had chosen a small tree and a horrible little thin branch, at most 2 or 3 centimeters in diameter, to hang himself from. Just next to the little tree was a magnificent old oak tree with sturdy, noble branches which would have provided a much more dignified exit from this world. But in any case, it is obvious that this sort of gallows costs nothing. Perhaps the thin rope would have involved some minuscule expense, but I can hardly imagine that the poor man had bought it.
    And then, as if this wasn't bad enough, the book ended with a very contrived device to explain the plot to the confused reader. The main villain is holding out in a houseboat on one of the canals of London, holding a gun. Robin finds him there. He says that he will kill himself rather than go to prison. On the other hand, if the evidence against him is too weak to convict him, then he will shoot Robin and throw her body into the canal. And so, holding the gun to her head, we go on for pages and pages, reviewing the plot of the book, Robin and the villain tediously going through all of the details so that the reader can finally understand what it was all about. In the end Robin is saved by Strike bursting in and telling the disappointed villain that the gun wasn't even loaded.

Troubled Blood, by Robert Galbraith

     Despite my objections to the previous book, I have now read the next, fifth, book in the series. And again, I read on through the day and into the night. I'm a slow reader and it is a long book, I think the printed edition is almost 1000 pages. We are drawn on and on, from one episode to the next. The subject of the investigation is a horrible business: how women can be abused, mistreated, tortured by violent mafia gangs or psychopathic murderers. The plot was easier to follow than that of the last book despite there being again many different characters under investigation. Am I giving too much away by saying that the resolution of the puzzle was not what we had expected?
    It is pleasant to live in a book like this for a few days, but then at the end we imagine other ways we could have spent that time. While being an enjoyable book to read, now, after reading it, thinking about what might have been sufficiently interesting in the book to write about here, I can think of nothing.

The Wager, by David Grann

     The subtitle of the book is: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder. The relevant Wikipedia article is here. Years ago, when I was still getting books from the Folio Society, I read The Wreck of the Wager. It simply republished two books which had first appeared in the middle of the 18th century. The first was entitled A Voyage to the South Seas in the Years 1740-1, written by John Bulkeley and John Cummins. Bulkeley, the first and principal author, was the gunner on the Wager. He encouraged some of the shipwrecked men, and in particular the carpenter, Cummins, to enlarge one of the ship's boats to accommodate perhaps 60 or more of the survivors and return with them through the Straits of Magellan to Portuguese Brazil where they would be saved and returned to England. The Captain, David Cheap, had other ideas. He ordered everybody to somehow continue northwards, perhaps plundering some Spanish town, capturing a Spanish ship, and gloriously rejoining the fleet. Almost everybody recognized that this was madness, and so most followed Bulkely. Cheap and a few others remained behind.
    Was this sailing without the captain an act of mutiny? What if Cheap and the others who were left on the desolate island off the Pacific coast of Patagonia were to survive and return to England as well? The punishment for mutiny was death by hanging. And so this first book was written to explain their actions, to clear themselves of criminal charges. It is written in a simple, direct style, unlike the typical writings of those 18th century upper class authors, filled with flowery phrases.
    The second book of the Folio volume is The Narrative of The Honourable John Byron, which was published years later. Byron was a teenage midshipman on the Wager; his grandson was the famous poet, Lord Byron. He initially joined Bulkeley's venture, but then changed his mind and stayed with Captain Cheap. They and a few others were left with a small ship's boat with which they attempted to row northwards through the rough Southern Ocean. Some of the men were lost or abandoned and the remainder were reduced to returning to the desolate Wager Island. But then they were saved by a group of native people who gave them food and transported them in canoes to the Chilean island of Chiloé where they were imprisoned by the Spanish and lingered for years before being allowed to return to England at the end of the war. Of this group only four returned. The three officers: Cheap, Byron, and another midshipman, together with one seaman.
    Captain Cheap immediately accused those who had arrived years before of mutiny. But Cheap himself faced grave legal charges. He had shot one of the midshipmen through the head in cold blood, killing him. He was a murderer, and this charge was beyond dispute. He had sentenced a number of the starving men who had stolen some of the provisions to 600 lashes with the cat of nine tails. 200 on three successive days. Of course this killed them, an indescribably cruel act of murder. I have read somewhere that a captain in the British Navy in the 18th century was not allowed by himself to punish a seaman with more than 12 lashes, enough to leave the exposed back nothing but raw, bleeding flesh, cut to the bone. Only a general court martial, consisting of all the captains of the fleet, was entitled to sentence more lashes than this.
    These details were not described in the book of Bulkeley and Cummins, nor that of Byron. The present book gives us a broader picture of the whole horrible business. In the end a court martial was held on one of the great ships of war in Portsmouth Harbor, and the result was a general acquittal. Everyone was free. We are told that Bulkeley was offered the captaincy of a naval ship, which he declined, instead migrating with his family to the Pennsylvania colony, where he disappeared from history. Cheap, despite his murders, was given another ship to captain, And Byron rose to high office in the navy, becoming an admiral.
    All of this took place in connection with the War of Jenkin's Ear. A ridiculous name for a war which caused much suffering for little of consequence. Anson's fleet consisted of six ships, with about 1900 men. Many of those were forcefully kidnapped and confined on the ships before the voyage started. They included over 250 invalids who had been taken from the Chelsea Hospital, some of them brought aboard on stretchers. In fact the ship's cook on the Wager was 82 years old, and he managed to stay alive up to the passage through the Straits of Magellan with Bulkeley, where he finally died.
    The idea of the expedition was to round Cape Horn, plunder the Spanish Pacific coast, capture the Manila Galleon, and return home triumphantly. Only one ship returned and perhaps 400 people survived. Of the Wager, only a handful. All the rest died of scurvy, hunger, drowning, freezing, torture, murder, and all the rest. And yet Anson did succeed in capturing the Manila Galleon, thus securing him a place in the long and questionable history of needless English wars.

The Lock-Up, by John Banville

     The title of this book has nothing to do with hysterical people getting colds; lock-ups or -downs; social-distancing; masks; COVID; mRNA injections; adverse events, and all that. It appears that the idea of a "lock-up" in Ireland refers to a garage with a door which can be closed and locked where you can put your car. Two years ago I had a phase of reading lots of John Banville books. This one is a continuation of the Quirke series. It describes an adverse event.
    These Quirke stories take place in the Dublin of the 1950s and early 60s. In a lock-up, a young woman is found dead in a sports car with the windows taped up, a hose attached to the exhaust and led into the interior of the car, poisoning the woman. During the autopsy, Quirke finds small marks of injuries around the mouth, showing that it was murder, not suicide. She was Jewish. Rosa Jacobs.  Quirke's wife who accidentally died six months ago in a gunfight in Spain was also Jewish. He is still mourning her. And then Molly, the sister of the murdered woman, arrives from London. Quirke soon falls in love with her and she with him.
    But who was behind the murder? Suspicion falls on Graf von Kessler, a rich landowner, a German, a lover of horses with a magnificent Irish country estate,who suddenly turned up after the Second World War. Who is he really? What are his connections with the Catholic Church. Was his son in love with the murdered woman? Or was he in love with Rosa? Did she find out something she shouldn't have found out?
    And then we learn that Quirke's earlier colleague, Sinclair, the former lover of Quirke's daughter, has himself moved to Israel, and we learn that Herr Kessler is supplying Israel with material and equipment in its program to build atomic bombs. Lots of explosive stuff for a mystery novel. As always, John Banville's beautiful prose makes for enjoyable reading. In the end we are left with a number of loose threads and unresolved questions.
    But one thing which I found difficult to imagine was the idea that Quirke's new girlfriend, Molly, the sister of the murdered woman, could possibly be attracted to Quirke. After all, she is as young, or even younger than Quirke's own daughter. And then we are continually told about his drinking and smoking. He must be drinking a bottle or two of whiskey every day, together with two or three packs of cigarettes. Continuously hung over. Flabby. Imagine what his breath must be like! How can she possibly lie in bed next to such a man without being overcome with a feeling of revulsion?

Be Mine, by Richard Ford

     This is undoubtedly the last novel in Ford's Frank Bascombe series. Frank is now in his early 70s. He is becoming increasingly frail. Yet his remaining son Paul, who is in his 40s, has suddenly been diagnosed with ALS, a degenerative disease of the nerves and brain whose cause is unknown, usually leading quickly to death. And so Frank takes him to the MAYO clinic where he is examined but not treated. After a few weeks of examination, staying in a luxury house provided by an old friend of Frank's in the real estate business, he sets off with Paul on a road trip across America to look at the statues of the four great presidential heroes of the United States which have been carved into the rocks of Mount Rushmore on a monumental scale. Having neglected Paul and his other children all his life, this provides them both with an opportunity to be together and to experience the wonders of the American West. The dialog is full of cynical, self-centered, aggressive swearing, ignoring one another, all of this delivered in an atmosphere of calm detachment. Is this the way modern people cope with their destiny?
    When reading a book like this I often wonder if the author sees himself in the main character. The Wikipedia page of Richard Ford provides us with a photo of the author. He is 79 years old and he doesn't look at all like the weak, frail, egoist we encounter in Frank Bascombe. He looks like a pleasant man. But does the author share the political views which Frank Bascombe has told us about in the previous novels of the series?
    Although the book came out last year, the time of Frank and Paul's road trip was the early Spring of 2020. Frank does not seem to be at all hysterical about Trump. This was the time of Trump's "operation warp-speed" to get all those mRNA injections approved in no time at all with almost no testing. At the end of the novel we are told that Paul has gone to be with his sister, somewhere out west, leaving Frank to stew in all his unpleasantness back in Haddam, New Jersey. (Apparently this is supposed to be Princeton.) There Paul dies, but not of ALS, rather of COVID. This was in 2020, and therefore it couldn't have been an mRNA adverse event. Instead he was probably injected with Remdesivir which, given his weakened ALS condition, knocked him out, after which he would have been forcefully ventilated, killing him and thus guaranteeing the hospital tens of thousands of dollars more income than would otherwise have been the case. On the other hand some healthy people did survive the Remdesivir treatment, as was demonstrated by Trump.

Die Welt von Gestern, by Stefan Zweig

     The English title is "The World of Yesterday". I had thought that it would be concerned with the world of Vienna at the turn of the 19th to the 20th centuries, telling us about what life was like. The elegance, the sophistication, music, arts, the scientific advances which were being made, all destroyed by the First World War. The first three chapters were indeed concerned with that lost world. But then things became more and more autobiographical: the war, the catastrophic 1920s and 30s, and ending as the author is trying to find peace in a quiet apartment in Bath in England in 1940. After finishing the book and writing further things, he finally committed suicide with his wife in Brazil in 1942, depressed with everything that was happening to that world of yesterday.
    Stefan Zweig was born in Vienna in 1881 into a well-to-do Jewish family. He tells us of the stability, the solidity of life in those days. People looked up to older, experienced people. Who could imagine the modern-day cult of youth? Young people were nothing, an embarrassment; what could be worse than being a middle-aged, yet youthful looking person, always looked down upon as being inexperienced, worth nothing. He tells us that a hundred years before this time the Jewish people were down-trodden, confined to their ghettos, but now - in the late 19th century - they have equal rights with everybody else. And so many, including his family, have become wealthy, establishing factories, contributing to the general improvement of life for everybody. He tells us about school, about having to learn various languages, but finding his school in Vienna, as with all schools of the time, to be dreadful. The real learning was with his school friends. They are a literary circle. Literature, poetry, music are everything. The newspapers are concerned with the music of Mahler, literature criticism. The feuilleton.
    When the author was a young man of 20 or so he published a book of poetry, obscurely he thought, but unexpectedly he received a letter from Max Reger, proposing to compose songs to four of the poems. Later he also collaborated with Richard Strauss. He sent some writings to the Neue Freie Presse, the premier newspaper of Vienna, and he immediately was invited to meet with the feuilleton editor, Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism. Stefan Zweig became close friends with Herzl and later published much in the newspaper. Herzl comes across as a very pleasant man. He had originally advocated the complete assimilation of the Jewish and Austrian people, but when covering the Dreyfus affair for the paper he changed his mind. He wrote a novel, Altneuland, (literally: Old-New-Land) which I downloaded and began reading. It is a very readable style of writing, a utopian book, much like News from Nowhere, William Morris' book which I read a few years ago. A vision of a future Palestine, a prospering center of the world where the different religions and peoples live together in perfect harmony. Unfortunately Herzl died soon after meeting Stefan Zweig, and from the Wikipedia article we see that neither he nor anybody else in his family lived to experience the reality of Israel.
    The author soon became a very popular author. He was the most translated author in the world. He tells us of his various trips around Europe and the world and of his friendships with many of the famous people of the early 1900s. He bought a house in the "village" of Saltzburg in 1917, in the middle of World War I. As he describes it, we imagine a small building, dilapidated, a leaking roof. But looking things up in the internet we find that it is in fact a small castle, the Paschinger Schlössl. In the chaos and poverty after the end of the war, the local orchestra organized an open-air concert in order to raise some money. This quickly grew into the Saltzburger Festspiele. and all of the great conductors and musicians of the time pilgrimed the hundred steps up the Kapuzinerberg to visit and become friends with Stefan Zweig.
    We are told about the catastrophe of the inflation, first in Austria, and then very much worse in Germany. And then of Hitler. How his books were publicly burned for no other reason than that he was Jewish. Yet many of the Nazi inner circle were avid readers of his books. He is overtaken with depression. It is a shame that he took his life. If he had lived on another 10 or 20 years, would he have been accepted back into the life of the post-war Vienna, and of Austria? Would he have found it to be a life worth living?

What You Are Looking For Is in the Library, by Michiko Aoyama

     A book written by a Japanese woman. This translation into English renders it into simple, almost childish prose. Does this reflect the style and feeling of the original Japanese? There are five chapters telling us the stories of five different characters, all of them everyday people with their everyday problems. They are unhappy in their jobs. There is no time for doing what they would really like to do. One is a man who has retired and found that life has become meaningless, empty. He has discovered that all of the people he had thought of as his friends were really just connected with his job, and they are no longer friends. A woman has a small child, taking up all her time. A man with a boring job would prefer to have a shop filled with antiques, knowing that it would be impossible to make a living that way. Each of these people happen to go to the local library where the librarian makes a list of books which they might read. And in each of the stories they are led to happy resolutions.
    It is a pleasure to read of ordinary people and their ordinary problems. A change from the usual stories of extraordinary people which fill most of these books.

Amok: Novellen einer Leidenschaft, by Stefan Zweig

     This is also a book of longish short stories, or novellas. There are seven such stories, the first being Amok, the title of the series. The characters in these stories are not ordinary; they are hysterical, they are running Amok.
    The title story is of a doctor in some Far Eastern colonial backwater, perhaps the Malaya of those days. Stationed somewhere out in the jungle, many miles from civilization. He tells us that he is going mad while enjoying the sensual pleasures of life in the steamy bush. Suddenly an arrogant Englishwoman turns up, her driver carefully staying by the car. She avoids saying what she needs, but it is clear: an abortion. The doctor avoids agreeing to the operation, perhaps even hinting of a different kind of reward other than the many thousands of pounds which are openly offered for his services. She drives off in huff. He tries to follow on his bicycle, becoming hysterical. Her husband has been away for many months so it is clear that the pregnancy is a scandal. He follows her to the capital city. Is it Singapore? Does he love her, or does he love the idea of her? She refuses to let him into her palatial house. He tries to send her messages, but then she has gone to a Chinese abortionist in a brothel, or opium den, somewhere in the seedier part of town. She is bleeding to death; he is summoned, but he can do nothing. The husband returns and then sets off in a ship back to England with the dead body, to be buried far away. The doctor is secretly on the ship as well. He must save the woman, or the memory of the woman, from defilement. And in a dramatic scene at the end of the story he falls into the sea together with the coffin, drowning, both of them lost forever.
    Another story is about a man taking his summer holiday on a Swiss Alp. The weather is hot and dry. There are distant thunderstorms, but they do not reach the valley of his hotel. Everything is dry. It is hot. Even the nights are hot. The man is becoming hysterical. It is so dry. When will it rain? Water, where is water? In his delirium he notices that a girl, or young woman, who is also a guest at the hotel with her parents, has the similar look of hot, dry delirium as himself. All of this culminates in an erotic encounter on the hotel bed which, being published over a hundred years ago, albeit in the German language in Austria, avoids titillating details, and which, suggestively, ends with a great downpour of rain and a startling awakening of the young woman. I don't know if this would be a story to satisfy the imaginations of all of those Global Warming enthusiasts, or even of Greta Thunberg, but it is a good thing that the hero of the story was not in Australia, where a good, long, hot drought is usual, and he would have had to wait months, if not years, for the explosive, watery resolution of his hysteria.
    And then there is the story Brief einer Unbekannten. The English translation is Letter from an Unknown Woman. A writer moves into an apartment in Vienna opposite that of a very ordinary family: the parents with a daughter of perhaps 12 or 13 years old. She observes the writer coming and going through the peephole of the door of the apartment. She secretly falls in love with him, or at least with the idea of him. She observes that various women accompany him into his rooms late at night. He seems to have a very active sexual life. We are reminded of Arthur Schnitzler. Did Stefan Zweig imagine himself in the character of this story? On the other hand he told us in Die Welt von Gestern that people in those days had great fears of contracting syphilis. The treatment consisted of massive and continuous dosages of mercury, whose consequences might have been even more horrible than the disease. Anyway, the family moves to Innsbruck and the girl pines after her secret love, the writer. She grows up, leaves home, and returns to the big city. There she hangs about the old apartment, becoming noticed, but not recognized by the writer as the girl of yesterday, and is taken into his bed sufficiently often to generate a pregnancy. She does not want to embarrass him; indeed, she recognizes that he would refuse to have anything to do with her, and he would accuse her of falsely claiming that the child was his. She has the baby in a sordid teaching hospital, barely surviving. The child, a son, is now 10 years old. A perfect child, as beautiful as his father. But he dies. And the mother is also dying. She has recently encountered the writer, but again he has not recognized her. After all, how can he place her face among all the hundreds of faces of the women he has slept with over the past 10 years? She writes a letter to the writer, saying that he will receive it only if she has already died. She still loves him and is totally devoted to him.
    I finished reading this story late one evening and found it to be so dreadful that I couldn't get to sleep. What a sad, unpleasant vision of women this story tells us. Could it be that Stefan Zweig was such a misogynist? I hope not.