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This year (2018)

Previous years: 2017; 2016; 2015; 2014; 2013; 2012; 2011; 2010; 2009; 2008; 2007; 2006; 2005


Bettina Hoffmann:
     Die Viola da Gamba
Graham Swift:
     Last Orders
     Waterland
Ian McEwan:

     The Children Act

     Nutshell
Ian McEwan:

     Black Dogs
Hideo Yokoyama:
     Six Four
Philip Salom:
     Waiting
Jane Harper:
     Force of Nature
Miles Franklin:
     My Career Goes Bung
     Some Everyday Folk and Dawn
Robert Bryndza:
     Deadly Secrets
Edward St. Aubyn:
     Dunbar
Jo Nesbo:
     Macbeth
Yasunari Kawabata:
     Beauty and Sadness
Yasunari Kawabata and Yasunari Inoue:
     The Izu Dancer and Other Stories
Tom Wolfe:
     The Bonfire of the Vanities
William Makepeace Thackeray:
     Vanity Fair
Jim Garrison:
     On the Trail of the Assassins
James Baldwin:
     Go tell it on the Mountain
Tayari Jones:
     An American Marriage
Cormac McCarthy:
     No Country for Old Men
Flynn Berry:
     Under the Harrow
Sarah Vaughan:
     Anatomy of a Scandal
Flynn Berry:
     A Double Life
Robert Galbraith:
     Career of Evil
Megan Abbott:
     Give Me Your Hand
Katherine May:
     The Electricity of Everything Living
     The Whitstable High Tide Swimming Club
Ariel Kahn:
     Raising Sparks
Amor Towles:
     A Gentleman in Moscow
Junichirõ Tanizaki:

     Some Prefer Nettles
Natsume Soseki:
     Kokoro
Graeme Macrae Burnet:
     The Accident on the A35
     His Bloody Project

A Few Books from the Beginning of the Year:

     To begin with, a Christmas present was Bettina Hoffmann's book on the viol - or viola da gamba. I didn't really appreciate it as much as a previous book I had read on the same subject, namely "Die Gambe", by Annette Otterstedt. That earlier book had more technical information about the instrument, and interesting, very personal observations of the author. But the present book was a history of the viol, finding as many historical quotations as possible which boundlessly praise the qualities of the instrument. While this may flatter the ambitions of amateur musicians, it had less substance than Ottersetdt's book. Of course I am extremely interested in this subject since now, in retirement, my main ambition is to learn to play the viol. For this purpose I am practicing for at least three hours most days.

    Last year I very much enjoyed reading "Mothering Sunday", by Graham Swift. Therefore I was looking forward to reading more by the same author. "Last Orders" won the Booker Prize in 1996, so I thought it must be good. However, as experience has often shown, the Booker Prize is not a particularly good recommendation. I was only able to wade through the first 50 or so pages before giving up. The book is filled with working class London dialogue, often awkward to read, involving a group of men who have been drinking together at a pub for years. One of the men has died and they are setting off to do something with the ashes. I suppose the professors of literature, sitting on the Booker Prize Panel with their posh, upper class accents, thought that they might redeem themselves by voting for this book. I found it to be boring, seemingly going nowhere, telling a totally uninteresting story.
    Then I tried "Waterland" and did read it through to the end. The story takes place in the Fens, which is a lowland region on the eastern coast of England. The author philosophizes about the quality of mud, water, eels, flatness. He seems to associate these things with human depravity, madness. The story of the book is a complicated affair, describing the rise and fall of a brewery family. In the end it all boils down to an unpleasant little business involving the memories of the narrator of his adolescent sexual explorations in the mud, resulting in the pregnancy of his future wife, a horrible abortion and the consequences of the resulting sterility. An unpleasant story.

    Happily, I then realized that there are still a number of books by Ian McEwan which I have not read yet. "The Children Act" is about a very highly placed, established woman judge in the English judicial system at the "Inner Temple", or something, of the "Inns of Court" in London. She has her apartment there which she shares with her husband, a professor at a London university. They have no children. Career has come first, and now it is too late. Frustration about the failure of this basic biological urge to reproduce causes the husband to think of an affair with a younger woman. His wife, the judge, filled with anger, tells him that the consequence will be his banishment from the family. But this isn't really the main story. It is concerned with the Jehovah's Witnesses and a young man who needs a blood transfusion to save his life, yet he is a few weeks short of his 18th birthday, still a minor, and thus, following the recommendation of the hospital, could be forced by the courts to accept a transfusion against his wishes. As with all these books of McEwan, it was hard to put down. There develops a fatal relationship between the young man and his judge.
    I've given pints of blood to the Red Cross at least 30 times over the years. But now I'm too old, and anyway, after all my eye operations a few years ago they think that my blood might have become impure so they no longer want it. Blood seems to me to be something which is hardly worthy of complicated religious pronouncements.
    "Nutshell" was a strange book, telling the story of the murder of a man by his brother and his pregnant wife through the experiences of the unborn baby. It took a while to get used to the idea of an unborn baby philosophizing about all sorts of things, and in particular objecting to the fact that the brother of his father was continuously inserting his member into the birth canal of his mother. But gradually it became an amusing story of human frailties.

Black Dogs, by Ian McEwan

     The review in the New York Times which I've linked to here really tells it all. June and Bernard Tremaine fall in love with one another while working in some sort of secret agency an London during the Second World War. They had both joined the communist party of England during the 1930s, perhaps for the friendship of other young people, all going out together on bicycle trips and what have you. They marry after the war and take a trip to Italy and France with the idea of helping people who had become destitute. After a month or two of this, they escape to a lonely region in the south of France to go hiking in the hot summer sun.
    At one point, June walks ahead, leaving Bernard behind, examining the doings of some caterpillars. Suddenly June sees two huge black dogs along the path. They attack her, but she shields herself with her rucksack and stabs one of them with a pocket knife, thus driving them away. This experience changes their lives. The dogs represent evil. They were trained for evil by the occupying Nazi Gestapo. Returning along the path, June and Bernard meet a tranquil French shepherd who lets them sleep in an old barn. On an impulse June buys the barn, and over the years it becomes the center of her life. She rejects communism and embraces mystical spirituality. Bernard returns to England. His overly rational communism turns him into a successful left-wing politician, often in the news, having an opinion about everything. June and Bernard hate, and yet still distantly love one another, living far apart in different countries. All of this is narrated many years later by their son-in-law who speaks to one and then the other, trying to understand their story.
    I thought it strange that June settled in that isolated, lonely farmhouse near to her experience of evil. But who can understand the mysteries of the spirit? Bernard has rationalized away the failure of communism, yet the middle chapter of the book takes place in the Berlin of 1989 when the Wall fell down. Bernard is excited and rings the narrator in the middle of the night to get him to come with him to enjoy the End of Communism party in Berlin. They hectically arrange a flight from London. In Berlin, Bernard is attacked by a group of skinheads.
    If the book is about good and evil then I suppose Bernard has now also learned that there are forms of evil which are not political. I remember that some Germans here did go to Berlin back then on that night in 1989, finding it to be a great emotional experience. But I thought the situation was potentially very dangerous, and the many Russian soldiers stationed in East Germany could easily have been ordered to go on the rampage, violently suppressing the whole business. Thankfully that didn't happen.

Six Four, by Hideo Yokoyama

     This is a police novel written by a Japanese. It shares with those Scandinavian police stories and TV programs the idea that we are more interested in the police themselves, their personal lives, loves, ambitions, rather than the criminals, or the victims of all the crimes.
    But if we are to believe the story of this book, then it must be the case that those Japanese policemen are very different from the more familiar Scandinavian ones. The hero is named Mikami. (This made me think of Murakami, the novelist who writes those fascinating Japanese surreal novels.) There are lots of other policemen, women, and other characters whose names start with M, and so I lost track of things every now and then. At the end of the book we realize that all this M..., and in particular Ma... business has a certain reason. Anyway, Mikami used to be a detective, actively hunting criminals, but six or eight months ago he was unhappily transferred from the "Criminal Investigations" side of things into "Administrative Affairs". His job is to deal with the press. Newspapers, TV.
    His office is next to the room of the Press Club, and the big thing is that a pregnant woman has had an accident in her car, killing a pedestrian. The press wants to know her name. Yet Mikami has instructions to protect the woman by withholding the name. This conflict seems to go on for hundreds of pages. The reporters in the Press Club become more and more aggressive. And then everybody else in Administrative Affairs treats Mikami dreadfully as well.
    Do all those Japanese who, as in this story, outwardly pretend to be so nice and polite suddenly become horrible in when they know that they are safely concealed from public censure?
    The GREAT SECRET, which at all costs must remain hidden, but which after countless trials and tribulations Mikami uncovers, is that during a kidnapping 14 years ago, the police tried to record the kidnapper's voice on tape, but for some obscure technical reason, the tape recorder failed to start at the critical moment. The police considered this to be such a great scandal that everyone who knew about the problem was silenced.
    One of the policemen was hounded out of the force, and then another policeman spent the next 14 years spying on the disgraced one. And another was driven to insanity, spending the 14 years locked up in his bedroom.
    This - or perhaps many other things - (or the Japanese mentality in general) led to a total conflict between Administrative Affairs and Criminal Investigations. Rather than investigating crime, they seemed to spend all their time investigating one another. Finally Mikami learns the ULTIMATE SECRET, namely that the central police department in Tokyo is planing to replace the local chief of police with a candidate of their own. This is considered to be a catastrophe of such earth-shaking dimensions that it is almost sufficient to unite Administrative Affairs and Criminal Investigations.
    Well, all of this seems to me to be very strange. How are we to understand all these crazy Japanese? Surely things at the local police station would improve if Tokyo sent somebody to clear up the whole mess. And somehow the Scandinavian version of "The Police" agrees more with what I would imagine to be a sensible state of affairs. But thankfully I have almost never had reason to interact with the police. Nevertheless it seems to me that at least the police here are civilized and can be counted upon to see to it that society functions with as little fuss as possible.

Waiting, by Philip Salom

     An Australian novel. Things take place in Melbourne. It starts off with chapter 1 telling us about a crazy couple: Little and Big. Little is a relatively young woman who is suffering from Lupus, an extremely unpleasant autoimmune disease which particularly affects women and which has left Little a semi-invalid. Big is a fat, older man, a former bush cook who worked for a team of sheep shearers but who now has become a transvestite, exposing his hairy arms and legs by wearing awkward dresses and other female paraphernalia. They seem to have no source of income and so they live in a "hostel" which is also occupied by other outcasts. Australia is a comfortable, prosperous country, and so they must all receive generous payments for their idle, eccentric lives.
    Big and Little are mainly preoccupied with the thought that Little's mother, in Adelaide, is dying, and so Little can expect to inherit her house, which she expects to then sell and so buy some modest home for herself and Big in Melbourne. (I don't know how realistic such a prospect would be these days, considering the mindbogglingly absurd real estate bubble in present-day Australia which has been fueled by all of those Chinese who have struck it rich.)
    But Little's mother has a number of sisters who also want the house. And thus she has a cousin in Melbourne who, in contrast to the rest of the characters, is a sensible person. He is a kind of landscape architect and contractor who constructs his own designs. And then the cousin has a girlfriend who is a university lecturer in some obscure field which nobody is interested in.
    It is a pleasant little story, rambling on and on. We sympathize with all of these characters, these misfits. I enjoyed the book.

Force of Nature, by Jane Harper

     Another Australian novel, but very different from the last one. The characters are again based in Melbourne. Rather than rambling on about nothing, letting one day dissolve into the next, everybody here is filled with action, ambition. We have a corrupt accountancy firm and a pair of policemen: a policeman and a policewomen. The policeman is secretly in love with the policewoman, but she is in love with somebody else - in Sydney - and so she steadfastly refuses to acknowledge any further attachments despite giving her Melbourne police partner a chaste kiss after a dramatic scene at the end of the book.
    But the real emotional tension results when the accountancy firm which they are investigating decides to send five men and five women from the firm into the bush for a character-building trek through the thick, cold, rainy forest of north-east Victoria. The men and the women are sent on different trails. The women get lost. They fight. They end up in a horrible, secret cabin used by a murderer and rapist some 20 years before this time. The fighting and bickering amongst the women continues and increases. It ends in tragedy. And we learn about the broken families of these women. The head of the firm, who is taking part in the men's part of the trek, also has a broken family. His degenerate son was together with the degenerate daughter of the woman making all the problems in the woman's group.
    The problem with these two youthful family members was that they took videos of themselves using their mobile telephones, in exposed, compromising situations. Then, as is typically the case with such things, the videos found their way onto the internet, thus exposing the daughter to unwanted notoriety. I can well imagine that such a situation would be unpleasant. But surely the crimes of the accountancy firm, robbing innocent people of their savings, were more serious.

My Career Goes Bung, by Miles Franklin

     Back in 1983, the Folio Society brought out a very nice edition of Miles Franklin's My Brilliant Career which I read then (and which I have now reread) and which made a great impression on me. The author was only 17 or 18 years old when she wrote it, living with her family at the Brindabella Station amongst the Brindabella hills just west of Canberra (which didn't exist then) back in 1899. It is a novel, pretending to be an autobiography of rural Australia. The heroine of the novel is Sybylla Melvyn. She describes herself as being an ugly, but lively and sparklingly intelligent young woman. Her family was earlier prosperous, having extensive farmlands more to the west, but now they have a poor dairy farm near the town of Goulburn. The father has become a drunkard, leaving the family almost destitute. The mother, who was earlier an elegant woman, has become embittered, doing everything to make life as miserable as possible for poor Sybylla.
    Things improve when Sybylla is sent to stay with her still prosperous relatives, back out west. She blossoms, enjoys the new sense of belonging, and develops a romantic relationship with Harold Beecham, the tall, handsome owner of a large neighboring property who owns various other farms and extensive properties in Queensland as well. As in all such romantic novels, Adversary strikes. Sybylla is removed from the comfortable home in the west by the tormenting mother and made to work in a degenerate situation. Harold becomes bankrupt, loosing all his holdings. But then, following the pattern of a Jane Austen romance, circumstances change and the hero and the heroine come together. At first misunderstandings prevail. But then, contrary to our expectations and Jane Austen's examples, Sybylla refuses marriage, proposing instead undying women's liberation. The devastated Harold is sent into the wilderness, leaving all of his extensive, regained properties, aimlessly traveling about the world with a broken heart.
    The book was an instant success, both in England and in Australia, when it was first published in 1901.

    And so I thought it would be interesting to read the present book, My Career Goes Bung, which Miles Franklin wrote soon afterwards. What a difference! Sybylla's father is no longer the degenerate rural drunkard. Instead he is a man of great dignity and honor who has been reduced from prosperity to a more simple life due to the fact that he refused to be a part of the general corruption of life back then. Her mother is now a wonderfully loving, caring woman, doing her best to see that things go well with Sybylla. Reading about the life of Miles Franklin, and looking at the photo of her parents reproduced there, I can well imagine that this was what her parents were really like.
    Sybylla tells us about why she wrote My Brilliant Career, and about the shock of learning that it had been published in England. All of the neighbors are scandalized. Her parents dismayed. She travels to Sydney to stay with a wealthy family who are friends of her parents. And although she tells us that she is not beautiful, still, she is feted by all of Sydney society. The most desirable young bachelors all fall madly in love with her. She is the envy of the Australian literary scene. But through all this she writes scathingly cynical portraits of everyone she meets in Sydney. I am sure that for the people of those days, these descriptions would have been easily associated with the real-life people she so easily caricatures. Thus no publisher was willing to touch the book, and it was only first published in 1946.
     I suppose Miles Franklin considered this to be an honest description of the Australia of her day. Too honest. And thus it is a disappointing read after the lighthearted style of her first book.

Some Everyday Folk and Dawn, by Miles Franklin

     Miles Franklin published this one in 1909, when she was still a young woman. She had moved to Chicago to become part of the women's trade union movement. Despite this, the book is again set in Australia. The narrator is a middle-aged woman, an actress who is suffering from a heart condition. And so to recover, she settles in a boarding house in an imaginary town just west of Sydney. She tells us that it is on a river and the trains cross over a bridge on their way up over the Blue Mountains. Therefore it is clear that the river must be the Nepean River, and the town must be Penrith.
    At the boarding house she meets Dawn, a young woman who is beautiful in all ways. The boarding house is run by Dawn's grandmother who tells us everything about her old, Australian country ways, and in particular we learn about her ideas concerning the place of women in a rural, colonial society. Dignity and yet with deference to the menfolk. This is contrasted with the various undignified men who make their appearances in the book. Back in 1902, women in Australia had gained the right to vote, ahead of their contemporaries in most other countries, and so much is made in the book of whom the women were to vote for (all the candidates were men).
    But the main story is how the narrator tries to find a nice man for Dawn to marry, while at the same time encouraging Dawn to take singing lessons in Sydney with the aim of going on the stage. She faces strong opposition from the grandmother who thinks actresses are evil and a woman's place is in marriage.
    After reading the book in fits and starts I simply got bored and gave up halfway through. I need a more modern story with more action.

Deadly Secrets, by Robert Byndza

     Apparently this book is part of a linked series of detective stories, describing various cases which the heroine, Erika Foster, a Detective Chief Inspector with the London police, has been involved with. It's the story of a man who hides himself within a World War I style gas mask and then attacks men and women in a depraved manner on lonely, dark London streets. The book starts off with the murder of a young woman. Gradually we learn of many characters who might be suspects, or witnesses. One of them tries to kill himself by having the gas of his gas stove escape into the house, filling the air with natural gas. Erika and one of her sidekicks then come in to rescue the man. And we are told that they also suffer from severe cases of carbon monoxide poisoning. But wait a minute! The gas has not ignited, blowing up the house. It remains in its pristine state, not consumed by fire. And thus the methane and other hydrocarbons in the gas have not yet been converted to water, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide via the addition of atmospheric oxygen.
    We could forgive Robert Byndza this little confusion of the poisons involved in natural gas, but the resolution of the book was unforgivably disappointing.
    It turns out the killer of the young woman was not the large, brutal man behind the gas mask. Instead it was the frail, 97 year old woman around the corner. It turns out that she was a brutal, sadistic Nazi back in the days of World War II. A devilish woman concentration camp criminal. We are reminded of some of the opponents of James Bond, back in the old movie days. And now, 75 years later, the evil inherent in her body was sufficient to enable her to don a gas mask, overpower a young, healthy woman and slash her with powerful strokes of her kitchen knife, cutting deeply through her throat, severing bones and cartilages, and generally producing as much of a bloody mess as the real London gas mask man with all his vigorous, massive youthful strength had been doing. Perhaps the author would have done well to have visited a few geriatric wards while doing his research for this book in order to see what 97 year old women are really capable of.

Dunbar, by Edward St. Aubyn

     This is another book in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, this time based on King Lear. The review in the Guardian which I've linked to here describes things well. Very enthusiastic. But I wasn't so overwhelmed.
    The author has changed Shakespeare's Lear into a character named Dunbar for some reason which I didn't understand. Perhaps it was felt that the name Lear has already been taken by the manufacturer of those Lear Jets which the rich people of the world use to jet about the place in a style unpolluted by the common people. In any case, St. Aubyn has imagined his version of Lear to be a rich newspaper baron, somewhat like Rupert Murdoch.
    Dunbar has been committed to a kind of psychiatric hospital somewhere in the wilds of Scotland. He has been filled with mind-altering drugs by his two evil daughters who thus plan to take over the business. The good daughter, Cordelia, whose name is now Florence, has deserted the family in disgust. But the bad daughters, here named Megan and Abby, are so absurdly evil as to turn the story into a kind of nonsense comedy.
    Dunbar, who has managed to avoid swallowing the drugs, escapes from the hospital and sets off on a trek through the wilds, to be rescued in a helicopter by Florence. And so the story continues on, following the plot of the play.
    I suppose it must be considered to be an honor to be invited by the Hogarth Press to be the author of one of these modern versions of Shakespeare's plays. But for me this one was a disappointment.

Macbeth, by Jo Nesbo

     With this one we can at least say that the author has retained - more or less - the Shakespearean names of almost all the characters. Of course the play is quite short. I have certainly never seen it performed on stage, and I can't remember seeing a version at the movies or on TV. But I have read through the play a couple of times, and after reading this book, I read it again. The advantage of the longer format of a novel is that it is possible to go into things more deeply, explaining the reasons the various characters do what they do. Whereas in the play, we are suddenly jolted into the sequence of Macbeth's murders, in Nesbo's book we have an elaborate story of Macbeth being an orphan, becoming a drug addict, being saved by his heroic companion Duff (not Macduff), and so on. Lady Macbeth becomes simply "Lady". We learn that she also had a difficult childhood, and so we can understand her ambitions.
    In the story, Macbeth is not a Thane of Scotland, and Duncan is not the King. Rather Duncan is the commissioner of police in some unnamed Scottish city in, what we learn, was the year 1970. Perhaps it is Inverness. After all, Lady is the owner of the Inverness Casino. And Macbeth is the head of the SWAT team. Industry has closed down. Everything is in a state of decay and drugs are everywhere.
    In fact this makes sense. After all, what were the witches stirring in their cauldron, chanting "hubble, bubble, toil and trouble"? And so Hecate, the Queen of the Witches, becomes a secret old man, the elusive Don of the Scottish Mafia, running a hidden factory in the catacombs of the town's derelict railway, manufacturing "brew", which sounds rather like the crystal meth of Breaking Bad's Walter White.
    But the book is just too long, going on and on for hundreds of tedious pages, filled with needless brutality. In contrast, I can imagine that back then, at the beginning of the 17th century, the performance of the play must have been a magnificent spectacle. I wonder what sort of lighting effects they had when the witches and the spirits made their appearances? And there are numbers of songs whose texts and melodies have been lost but which must have been wonderful. It is said that the play made a very great impression on King James.
    Given that the editors of the Hogarth Press had decided to interpret their Macbeth as a crime novel, then I suppose Jo Nesbo would be a logical choice. On the other hand he wrote it in his native Norwegian, and the official Hogarth version is thus a translation. And, as I think I've written here elsewhere, I'm not really a fan of these long, involved, extremely brutal Scandinavian TV crime series. Ten or fifteen years ago I very much enjoyed the episodes of Commissioner Beck, a Swedish series involving the police in Stockholm. And so it was a pleasure to see that they are making some new episodes of that series. Peter Haber, the actor who plays Beck, has aged a bit, but he is as sensible and civilized as ever. It seems to me that a better version of Macbeth would have resulted if the Hogarth Press had chosen the authors of Commissioner Beck for this project, rather than Nesbo.

Beauty and Sadness, by Yasunari Kawabata

     At the beginning I thought that it must be a book of short stories. The first chapter was a wonderful, dream like description of a man in Japan, traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto on a train. It reminded me of the beginning of Kawabata's Snow Country.
    We learn that the man, Oki, is going to Kyoto to hear the ringing of the new year's bells which he has often heard, sitting alone at home, on the radio. Oki is a successful novelist. His first, and famous book, described the love of the narrator for a 15 year old girl. The narrator was 25 and married with a small child. But he loved the girl above everything. She became pregnant, but then had a miscarriage and nearly died. And then he left her and returned to his young family and she was taken by her mother to Kyoto, away from Tokyo. But in actual fact the novel described in minute, honest detail Oki's real-life affair with the young Otoko, for all the world to read about.
    It is now 20 years later. Oki wants to meet Otoko again after all those years. He is the famous novelist, and Otoko has become a famous painter. She has never married. Oki's son, Taichiro, has grown up and become an academic, a literary critic. Oki is still married to his wife despite the fact that she, and all the world, knows all the intimate details of Oki and Otoko's life together.
    Otoko agrees to meet Oki in a restaurant in Kyoto, but to keep a sufficient distance she has engaged a couple of geisha to help in the entertainments, and also she has brought along her assistant, Keiko, a beautiful young woman.
    Perhaps Otoko and Keiko are lovers. Of course Keiko has also read Oki's famous book of love. But she says she hates men, and she would like to take revenge against Oki. She seduces him in a hotel near Tokyo to the horror of Otoko who is still in love with Oki. But this is not enough. She seduces Taichiro, ending in tragedy. An ultimate revenge.
    All of this is related in beautiful scenes, from one poetic chapter to the next. I wonder how much of this is autobiographical. This is one of Kawabata's later novels. In the book, Oki lives in a place called Kamakura, a suburb of Tokyo, and in fact Kawabata himself lived there. The Wikipedia article has a picture of the author together with his wife and her sister. She is holding a small dog, looking at the camera with expressionless eyes. But here, and in the other photos as well, we see all the lively emotions of the author.

The Izu Dancer and Other Stories , by Yasunari Kawabata and Yasushi Inoue

     Looking around for something further by Kawabata to read, I found this one. I've already read almost all of the other offerings, at least what I could see in the German version of Amazon. So this book was a bit of a disappointment. The Izu Dancer is one of Kawabata's first short stories. And then there are a couple of further stories by this other person, Inoue, who I had never heard of before. They were generally boring and a real contrast with the masterly Kawabata. Still, Inoue's last story in the book, The Full Moon, was amusing.

The Bonfire of the Vanities , by Tom Wolfe

     The author died recently, and reading about it led me to this book which is so well known that it would be pointless for me to try to summarize the plot (which you can find in the Wikipedia).
    It's a long book, but I found it to be fascinating, reading on for hour after hour to find out what will happen next. This must have been how it was in New York City back in the 1980s. A dreadful mess. But apparently things have improved. New York is no longer the center of racial hatred and violence that it was. The crime rate has become less than in many other big cities. But still, as I understand it the huge prison at Rikers Island remains a true Hell on Earth.
    When reading of the tribulations of the hero, Sherman McCoy, I began to think of the fate of the true-life Bernard Madoff. How could he possibly have coped with prison? I see that of his sons, whom he dragged with him into his mess, one committed suicide rather than being forced to experience the hell of an American prison. Much was made of the fact that Madoff is Jewish, and that most of the victims of his financial schemes were fellow Jews. And in this book, we learn of all the various racial, or ethnic, or tribal groups living in New York, each of which protects its own members from the violence of the others. The poor, foolish Madoff betrayed his own tribe, and thus he could expect the full wrath of its vengeance.
    But Sherman McCoy did not betray his tribe - the rapacious bond dealers of Wall Street whose excesses are now even worse than in the 1980s. He was innocent (as far as that can be said of those Wall Street characters). And so when reading the book we sympathize with him and revile the many evil characters progressively ruining his life.
    Tom Wolfe paints a believable picture of the justice system of New York, and we put the book away, being thankful that we do not live there.

Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray

     Another long book about vanity. I hadn't read it before, despite the fact that it is so well known. Somehow I had the impression that it must have been some sort of listing of the various characters the author had known, or at least known about, back then at the beginning of the 19th century when people had very different thoughts to the things which occupy our minds these days. But in reality, and in contrast with those complicated thoughts, it is simply a novel.
    We follow the adventures of two young women: Amelia and Rebecca. Amelia is rich, if not a member of the true upper classes, but she is pure and modest. Rebecca has no money and her parents were common dancers, painters. And so Amelia sets off into the world of romantically vain marriage, enveloped in comfortable riches, while Rebecca is left to find a position as a private tutor somewhere.
    Amelia and Rebecca lead us through the various twists and turns of the plot which are too long and tedious to be described here, but which can be found in the appropriate Wikipedia article, or indeed by reading the book. But the book is very long. As with all those thick novels of Dickens', this one was originally published as 19 monthly pamphlets, between 1847 and 1848, leading to disjointedness and a heavy style.
    But the beginning was fun to read. Amelia hooks up with her childhood sweetheart, George, who is the most vain character imaginable. He throws away all the considerable monies his rich father gives him on gambling and high living. He is a dashing officer in some regiment of the British army. It is 1815, and Napoleon Bonaparte, who is referred to as "boney" , has escaped from his exile on the island of Elba and is threatening to put Europe into an unpleasant re-run of all the wars of the previous 10 years. And so all the members of Vanity Fair descend upon Brussels to confront boney.
    We have elaborate descriptions of the fashionable goings on at Brussels, and in particular the Duchess of Richmond's Ball. And then they all gallop off to Waterloo where George gets himself killed in a display of vain gallantry, thus elevating himself in the eyes of Amelia to the level of a saint.
    I was reminded of the wonderful 18th century wit of Henry Fielding, particularly in his maginficent Tom Jones. But quite frankly, William Thackeray falls short of that standard. And as the book progressed, and as Thackeray tried to adopt himself to the fashions of early 19th century romanticism with each subsequent episode to be sold on the streets of London, the humor fades away to be replaced by a heavy Dickensian style of pathos and moralizing. Thus I found the second half of the story to be a disappointment.

On the Trail of the Assassins, by Jim Garrison

     I've always been fascinated by the story of the murder of President Kennedy. The basic idea of the whole thing seems clear enough, and in particular the book by James Douglas, "JFK and the Unspeakable", surely contains almost everything of relevance which is known these days. But of course many of the witnesses, whistle-blowers, have been themselves assassinated over the years, and the whole thing took place over 50 years ago so that new information only emerges as isolated documents, reluctantly released by the CIA, heavily blacked out, saying practically nothing.
    In contrast, Jim Garrison was the district attorney of New Orleans back then in 1963. For a couple of years he saw no reason to doubt the story which was told to us back then; that Lee Oswald was the sole murderer. But then in 1966 he learned about the activities of David Ferrie in his district of New Orleans, and so it was his responsibility to investigate the thing. He organized a small team of his assistant district attorneys, and all of this led them deep down into the rabbit hole. He describes his very personal experiences in this book.
    Eventually, in order to silence him, ridiculous accusations were made, and he himself was brought to trial. These accusations were shown to be absurd and the jury acquitted him. Nevertheless, even today, long after he has died, there are those who pretend that he was a shady figure. I suppose they cling to their dream of a pure United States, unsullied by any scandal, in which the god-like figures of their presidents fulfill their tragic roles in history.
    In the end Jim Garrison believed that the assassination of JFK amounted to a coup d'état, such that all subsequent presidents have been powerless puppets, performing for the benefit of their masters in the "military-industrial complex" which President Eisenhower warned us about. I see no reason to doubt this conclusion and I am happy to say that I left that country in 1965 and have never been back since then.

Go Tell it on the Mountain, by James Baldwin

     Apparently this book, while being a novel, is said to be a more or less autobiographical narration of the experiences of the author when he was a youth of 14. If so, I feel sorry for him. His name is John in the story. He is living in Harlem (New York, not Holland) in 1935, the time of the "Harlem Renaissance". But he and his family are not part of that artistic awakening. Instead they are sunk deeply in the horrors of religion.
    John's step-father is named Gabriel (we think of the Archangel Gabriel). He is a preacher in one of those storefront, evangelical churches, full of ecstatic, hysterical people shouting "Jesus" and "Praise the Lord", singing gospels, becoming possessed by the spirits, falling to the floor in epileptic-like seizures of profound religious delirium.
    Perhaps the outside observer might think that all of this is a harmless way of passing the time and cementing the bonds of community amongst the members of the congregation. But the Gabriel of the book is a profoundly evil character, continuously whipping John, shouting at him, staring at him with evil, angry eyes.
    The novel is arranged in chapters telling the stories of Gabriel, then of Gabriel's sister, and John's mother, all in profoundly religious terms. There are flashbacks to the events in the Deep South, after the abolition of slavery, and the migration of people to the North where life is also hard. The few references made to people of European, rather than African descent, describe them as the evil agents of Satan.
    While Gabriel ruins the lives of everyone, the stories of the two women are simply sad. Tales of hope, great expectations, which were then crushed by circumstance - and urged on by Gabriel.
    The final chapter is an extensive outpouring of the experience of John in the storefront church, falling to the floor surrounded by chanting "saints", experiencing a psychedelic kaleidoscope of visions representing his awakening to Jesus and The Lord. I found all of these biblical scenes to be rather tedious, and so I skipped through the final chapter to see if, in the end, John might awaken from this nonsense. He doesn't.

An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

     Celestial is married to Roy, and then there is Celestial's childhood sweetheart, Andre. They are young people in Atlanta. Apparently black, although at various stages Celestial speaks of Andre's tan, lion-like hair and reddish complexion. In contrast with the characters in James Baldwin's book, the ones in this novel have progressed way beyond any semblance of religious depravity. Celestial's father is a millionaire and Andre is a well paid programmer, tooling about in his M-class Mercedes. All are highly educated, upwardly mobile, no need for all of that affirmative action. But then something happens.

- But before getting into this, I couldn't resist including a little snippet which was in today's paper. Psychologists have examined the typical characters of people who own various brands of cars in Germany. Of course we just have a Volkswagen. Such people are described as being average, boring, with somewhat below average incomes. In contrast, Mercedes owners are described as being philistines; arrogant, earnest, not interested in sports or the environment, with somewhat above average incomes. (It is further noted that the arrogance of Porsche owners is only exceeded by those who own Ferraris.) -

    Roy's character, in contrast to Andre, is not peaceful and placid. He tends towards conflicts. And he considers it his right to sleep around with other women besides Celestial. One night, when staying at a hotel, they have another one of their fights, and they decide to have a pause of 15 minutes or so to cool down. Roy leaves the hotel room, wanders about, has a short exchange of words with a woman also roaming about the hotel in the middle of the night, then he returns to Celestial and they go to sleep.
    Then, some hours later, in the early hours of the morning, police storm into the room, shouting, throwing everybody out of bed, pinning them with knees in the back to the floor, handcuffing Roy and taking him away. He is accused of having raped the woman he had met in the hotel corridor. According to the story he is innocent, yet the woman clearly identifies him, testifying very definitely in court that he was the rapist. And so he is put away in some horrible American prison to suffer for a crime he didn't commit.
    But I couldn't quite follow the logic here. If he was innocent, why did the woman, who he didn't know, accuse him of such a thing, knowing the consequences it would bring? Or did he rape her? Something in the style of Boris Becker who quickly impregnated a maid on the nighttime stairs of the Wimbledon hotel between one tennis match and the next, lasting just a minute or two. But if that was the case, and the woman of the story, unlike Becker's maid, was not agreeable to the tryst, then why didn't she cry out, thus awakening the other guests who would have run to her aid and saved her? Surely such points should have been brought up during the legal proceedings in Roy's case, particularly considering the fact that Celestial's rich family had secured the best legal defense available.
    Anyway... So there was Celestial, living her life of freedom in Atlanta, becoming a successful artist (making large, lifelike dolls in the form of babies resembling Roy), finding sympathy with Andre who was the childhood neighbor such that both families had always expected Celestial and Andre to marry one another. And then there was Roy, smouldering away in a horrible dungeon.
    Seven years is a long time, and Celestial and Andre are making a good time of it, thinking of seven years as practically forever.
    And yet!
    Celestial's family's lawyer makes progress with an appeal. Perhaps he explains to the appellate court the problems with the supposedly raped woman's testimony which we have dealt with above. In any case, Roy is suddenly freed after only two years.
    Great drama. Violence. But I will not reveal the outcome for fear of spoiling things for whoever might read this and decide subsequently to read the book.

No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy

     A typical (US) American horror story. It was a fast-paced read. An amusing Wild West shoot up in modern times. The Guardian review which I've linked to here actually takes the whole thing seriously - including a paragraph about the various kinds of guns, and all the details of their various calibers, described in the book.
    I didn't see all that many Wild West movies as a child, and I can't remember which one it resembles. After all, they all resemble one another to some extent. But in fact, looking these things up in the internet, I see that the book was itself actually made into a movie. Maybe the movie was better than the book.

Under the Harrow, by Flynn Berry

     A woman, Nora, living in London, gets on the train to visit her sister who lives somewhere in the country. Was it near Oxford? The sister's house is somewhat isolated, out of town, although within sight of a couple of other country houses. Nora tells us about how much she loves her sister, how wonderful it will be to arrive, and how wonderful it will be when they go off together to an isolated cottage in Cornwall for a holiday.
    But when she arrives at her sister's house she finds a horrible scene. Blood everywhere. The sister has been murdered, stabbed many times. Her big German Shepard dog is hanging dead from a banister, strangled by his collar. Nora is covered in blood. She calls the police. Who did it?
    Gradually the story develops. She is asked to stay in town until the police investigations are completed. The last person to have seen the sister alive seems to have been the plumber. He has no good alibi. Nora stalks him, trying to provoke him. But she is afraid of all men. Who knows what violent things they will do.
    Strangely, at one point in the story she casually picks up a young man and spends the night with him having sex, with the thought that he might protect her from the possible violence of other men. Gradually the police begin to believe that Nora herself might have been the murderer.
    It was a good, fast paced read. Only at the end are the true circumstances revealed.

Anatomy of a Scandal, by Sarah Vaughan

     The author tells us that she attended Oxford University before joining the Guardian Newspaper, and then decided to become a novelist. Much of the story here takes place in Oxford, so we assume that Sarah Vaughan gives us a true picture of the goings at that famous university. When the students are hiding behind all those ancient stones, out of view of the tourists. I was surprised. I had always thought that most of the students would be very much focused on their studies, keen to obtain the best possible results and a successful future career. But according to the story of this book, Oxford seems to be a party university, progressing from one drunken, sex-filled scene to the next throughout the year.
    The hero, or at least the main character, is James, the stroke of the Oxford eight, swimming in all the riches bestowed upon him by his family, adored by all the beautiful, young, athletic, intelligent female students who share his bed. He is a member of the "Libertine" Club. This is a fictive club of rich students who meet in the restaurants of Oxford, eat to the point of vomiting excess, drowning themselves in champagne, smashing plates and glasses and furniture. Then afterwards, throwing wads of cash at the restaurant owners to pay for the damage. This reminds us of the true-to-life Bullingdon Club of Oxford, of which the former Prime Minister of England, David Cameron, was a member, together with Boris Johnson and various other of those people. And in the book, the main part of the story takes place 20 years after those Oxford years when James has become a minor minister in Parliament and his best friend is the Prime Minister. So I had the feeling that Sarah Vaughan was telling us something about the observations she had gathered on the political class of England during her time as a correspondent of the Guardian.
    While everybody at Oxford seems to swill huge amounts of alcohol, they also sniff volumes of cocaine. Apparently this is par for the course. Yet in a decisive moment, one of the Libertines tries some heroin, leading to tragedy.
    I must admit that I have very little experience of these things, being ignorant of the effects of both cocaine and heroin. But I have read that in its pure form, heroin is not such a dangerous business, at least in comparison with all those other things. Is it really so different from cocaine? Who knows.
    But all of this isn't really the scandal. It is perhaps the scandal behind the scandal which might bring James and his Prime Minister to fall sometime in the future. The immediate scandal is that although James has been married for 10 or 15 years to Sophie, the lithe, beautiful member of the Oxford women's scull, now, in his incarnation as a member of the Conservative Government, he is having an affair with Olivia, a young female member of his staff.
    Following his over-sexualized natural instincts, James takes Olivia not only in the privacy of her apartment but also in his office in Parliament, where both he and Olivia enjoy the excitement of thinking that they might suddenly be discovered. But, as I suppose all these affairs must come to an end, James tells Olivia that he would like to end the affair for the "good of his family". Of course Olivia is upset. Then, two weeks later, in the middle of various committee meetings in Parliament, they both step into an elevator, and between the moment the door closes on one floor and opens on the next, James has penetrated Olivia.
    Weeks later, after Olivia has gone to the police, James is arrested for rape. Was it rape? What is rape? Apparently the legal definition is that rape occurs if the party which is to be penetrated clearly expresses the wish not to be penetrated beforehand. During the trial, Olivia says that when entering the elevator she was agreeable, but then when the door closed, she clearly said "Not here!".
    Well, all of this is beyond anything I can imagine. But we follow the drama of James and Sophie, and of Kate, the prosecuting barrister who, we learn, has more than a professional interest in the case - back there in Oxford.

A Double Life, by Flynn Berry

     The story here is based on the real life Lord Lucan case. In the Wikipedia article, there is a very nice photo of Lucan, together with his young wife, taken in the year 1963. She reminds us of the pleasant, fashionable life of London in those days. But 10 years after the photo was taken, things had fallen apart. Lucan was typical of those degenerate, titled aristocrats. Throwing away all his money on gambling, women, the high life. He moved out of the house, leaving Lady Lucan with her two small children. But then on the night of the 7th of November, 1974, he entered the house and killed Sandra Rivett, the children's nanny. His wife, Veronica, coming upon the scene, was also attacked, but she escaped, a bloody mess, staggering to the local pub for help. And then Lucan disappeared, never to be found.
    People reported sightings of Lucan in one country or another, but they all proved to lead nowhere. Did he throw himself into the sea, drowning himself? Did he commit suicide in the some castle or other of his aristocratic "friends"? Or are they hiding him, even to this day?
    Since he was never found, there was no formal murder trial, yet his friends later accused Lady Lucan of staging the murder in order to get rid of her husband. After all, if they had divorced then Lady Lucan would have lost her title. And so, although it was generally believed that Lucan was the murderer, his friends became the enemies of Lady Lucan, excluding her from their society. Her two children, when grown up, decided to abandon their mother, preferring the pampered company of the father's family. It was only in 2016, following various legal battles, that the son, George, was able to have his father declared legally dead so that he could succeed to the title, and thus he has become the 8th Earl of Lucan. Good luck to him!

Flynn Berry's novel follows this story, but of course changing the names and the dates. It is told from the point of view of the daughter who, in the story, became a medical doctor. But she is obsessed with finding her father. She hates him since, as a small child, she saw the murder. What will she do if she ever finds him? How can she find him if he is being protected by his friends in high places?
    I enjoyed the book, and so I will refrain from describing how it ends in order not to spoil things for whoever might want to read it.

Career of Evil, by Robert Galbraith

     Of course, as we know, Robert Galbraith is the pseudonym of J.K. Rowling, the author of all those Harry Potter books. The present book is a continuation of her rather brutal detective stories involving the character Cormoran Strike. I did read the two books in the series preceding this one, and the stories of those books are continuously referred to here, but I'm afraid that I read them a couple of years ago so that many of these references made no sense to me.
    Strike's partner, or secretary, is Robin, a young woman who is engaged to some sort of a young London banker whose ambitions in life seem dull, uninspiring. Robin, on the other hand, is fascinated by detective work and she idolizes Strike. This rankles with her boyfriend. On the other hand, Strike has a girlfriend, a rich divorcee living in a luxurious London apartment. But throughout the story we enjoy the love developing between Strike and Robin. In the end it is dashed by Robin finally going through with her society marriage to her boyfriend.
     Surely the author sees herself in, or wishes to be like, the character of Robin.
    The story begins with a mysterious figure on a motorcycle delivering a box to Robin which contains an amputated woman's leg. Strike immediately thinks of three horrible, sadistic characters from his former life. One is his stepfather who his loose-living, degenerate mother took on all those years ago, and who tormented Strike during his teenage years. The two others are deformed characters he encountered during his years in the British Army, taking part in all those horrible wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and what have you. Meanwhile, the incompetent Scotland Yard Police follow other ideas.
    And so the book proceeds through the business of trying to find these three unpleasant characters. We learn more about possible bizarre forms of sadismus than we really wanted to learn in the first place. Does this reflect the hidden violence in children's fairy tales in the style of Harry Potter?
    I found the book to be long-winded, and I would have preferred Robin and Cormoran to have dropped their respective boy- and girlfriends and gotten properly together themselves.

Give Me Your Hand, by Megan Abbott

     This is the story of two young women, Kit and Diane, with flashbacks to when they were together in high school. Kit, the narrator, seems sensible, but her friend - or perhaps enemy - Diane, is mysterious. Diana has a dark secret which she shared with Kit back then. We only gradually learn about this secret, and it leads to another dark secret, a tragedy, now.
    The story takes place in a research laboratory concerned with biological things. Mice are kept in cages, experimented upon, dissected. There is Dr. Severin, the seemingly arrogant, straight-laced woman whose domain it is, and then a whole flock of post-docs and graduate students. Kit and Diane are the only women; all the rest are eager, struggling young men. Everyone hangs on Dr. Severin's every word - as far as she deigns to say anything.
    The big thing that is happening is that Dr. Severin has obtained a new grant, enabling perhaps just two out of ten of the underlings to take part in a new line of research. There is much speculation about who Dr. Severin will choose. Will this exciting new research be the start of a successful career? Will those who are not chosen continue to wallow in a dead end, leading to nothing?
    So what is this exciting new line of research?
    It is concerned with "PMDD". That is the unpleasant symptoms which some women experience around the time of menstruation. What is so exciting and new about that? And what is the dead end research which will be the fate of the losers who are not chosen by Dr. Severin? It is concerned with "hypogonadism". Another medical condition related to some sort of imbalance of the hormones.
    It seems to me that both of these conditions, while involving unpleasant symptoms for the sufferers, would be equally deserving of attention, and I see no reason to think that making progress on the PMDD question would in any way be superior to the hypogonadism question. From the way the book is written it seems to me that the author, Megan Abbott, has written this book for women. It was not written for me. PMDD is a condition which only concerns women whereas hypogonadism, which can also affect women, has, at least according to the narrative of the book, the most unpleasant consequences for men.

The Electricity of Everything Living, by Katherine May

     The author tells us that she is autistic. She has Asperger's Syndrome; she is an "Aspie". Somehow we seem to associate these things with awkward boys who find it difficult to cope with modern society. Isolated. Possibly savant geniuses. But in contrast with this, Katherine May seems to me, on the evidence of this book, to be quite normal. It is not a novel. Instead it is the story of her quest to hike along the full extent of the South West Coast Path of England, around Cornwall, including bits of Devon.
    A few years ago we stayed in Plymouth a number of times, looking after the family, and we also walked along sections of the Path. You can recognize it by the sign of the acorn which marks its way. There are beautiful views of the ocean, and you are generally walking through hilly, grassy fields, often climbing over the occasional stile.
    The author began her trek in late autumn when the weather was wet and stormy. She fights her way up steep, muddy inclines only to slide down through the mud on the other side. To make matters worse, she lives with her husband (who is referred to as "H") and her small son Bert way across the other side of England in Whitstable, which is east of London, on the Thames estuary. A long way from Cornwall.
    We often drove from Dover over to Plymouth. It is a tedious 6 hour drive which can become extended by slow traffic on the motorway around London. And so I can appreciate the effort poor old H put into driving his wife and son over to Devon, then spending the days with Bert in various play centers while Katherine May exhausted herself with a few miles of walking, using up the days of his vacation.
    The author tells us of her gradual awareness of her autism. She has always found it unpleasant to be touched by other people. She has difficulty making friends. Still, in the book she tells us about one friend and the other who drives over with her to the west coast and spends days hiking with her. She seems to have lots of deep conversations with these friends.
    Well, to be quite frank, let me contrast this with my situation here. I have only few friends in Germany despite the fact that I have been living here for over 40 years. Somehow all of these Germans seem to be on a different wavelength from me. But also the few Americans I know here seem to be on a totally different wavelength as well. So am I autistic? Perhaps. On the other hand, I don't mind being touched. If somebody gives me a nice hug, then that gives me a good feeling. Maybe if I had stayed in Australia, or if we had moved to England, then I would have had more friends.
    In fact, reading this book, which was quite fun, I had the feeling that Katherine May must be a very pleasant, warm and interesting person. And I would like to do some more walks along the South West Coast Path.

The Whitstable High Tide Swimming Club, by Katie May

     This one is a novel, and it is the same author even though she has now become Katie, rather than Katherine. In real life she lives in Whitstable, so it is closer to home. Looking at Whitsable using Google Maps, and particularly looking around the place with Street View, we see a pleasant little seaside town. The beach is stony. Not nice soft, warm sand. Apparently when the tide is out, the water is far away. Not worth it to walk such a long distance to get to it. And so the best time for swimming is during high tide.
    In the story, at first two women who are in the habit of swimming get to know each other. Gradually more women join them. There is even one rather shy, emasculated man who lurks around the edges. But the story is generally concerned with all the problems men are causing for these women. So I suppose it is a book written for women, not for me. But in her other book, Katherine May tells us all about her husband H, who seems to be a very understanding partner and father, so we see no reason for her to complain.
    Then the story is that the "west beach" where they swim is full of natural delights which are about to be ruined by the construction of some sort of entertainment complex. And so the Club has the purpose of stopping this development. On the other hand, the Google view seems to show lots of buildings there anyway. It is a far cry from the magnificent scenes of the South West Coast Path in the west of England.
    It was a nice little book to read, but nothing special.

Raising Sparks, by Ariel Kahn

     The story is concerned with Malka, a teenage girl who has fantastic, dream-like visions and who is able to perform miracles. She is loved by the young Moshe. But her visions lead her to escape secretly from home to find shelter in a strange community which seeks to find meaning in such visions. The leader almost rapes her and she again runs away, this time to a city by the sea, to find peace while swimming in the water, and fulfillment creating wonderful dishes in a restaurant on the beach. Meanwhile Moshe searches for his secret love. He also ends up in the same city, becoming almost destitute. But then they find each other, and the book ends with visions and miracles.
    We are reminded of some of the pleasant, surreal fantasies of Haruki Murakami. The hero discovering some strange, impossible things taking place in the real world. And at the end we smile, returning to the normal world, but imagining how it would be if the world were to be so strange. Murakami's stories are far removed from the horrors of established religion where different versions of absurd, impossible ideas lead to deadly conflicts, grinding on for centuries, even millennia, tormenting generation after generation.
    The Malka of this story is an Orthodox Jew, living at first in Jerusalem. Her visions are of the Kabbalah, the esoteric myths of Judaism. The city by the sea is Tel Aviv. She tells us of the hatred people have for the Palestinians and of the squalor in which they live, but she finds solace in their friendship. If only the pleasant visions of this book were to be true!

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

     Perhaps in a different time and under different circumstances I might have found humor in this book. But as it is, I gave up in disgust about a third of the way in. Somewhere on his website the author tells us something about himself. He was a Wall Street investment banker for 20 years, an American, traveling to various countries, staying in hotels. While doing so he discovered that there are people who live their lives in hotels. That is, they are waited upon day and night, year in, year out, by all the various employees of the hotels: the cleaners, the cooks, the waiters, the management. And so he got the idea to write a book about such a person living in a hotel from about 1920 to 1950. In Moscow of all places. During the upheavals of the communist revolution, the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, the Great Patriotic War of the 1940s. Is it believable to imagine that a hotel in Moscow throughout this period would continue to grovel to the needs of an absurd, arrogant aristocrat who, after all, represented the horrible abuses which were the basis of the Russian Revolution in the first place?
    Perhaps as an excuse, the author tells us that he is ignorant of the Russian language, he didn't study the history of Russia in school, and he has only been to the country a few times. But he did like reading classical Russian literature of the time before the Revolution.
    Why does such an American feel a need to write such a book in a time like this? The United States has become preoccupied with provoking wars in one country after another. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people have been killed. Millions are displaced, seeking refuge in some safe haven. But of course the United States refuses to accept these people who are suffering from the consequences of its dreadful actions. And the United States, contrary to its undertakings at the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union, has closely surrounded Russia with a network of heavily armed military bases, seeking to provoke conflict at every opportunity.
    Thus, at least for me, this book is as misplaced as is the nonsense which spews from the current President of that country.

Some Prefer Nettles, by Junichirõ Tanizaki

     This is considered to be a classic of Japanese literature. It was first published in 1929. The story is very simple really. A married couple, Kaname and Misako, have grown apart. We have the story from the point of view of the husband, Kaname. He still finds Misako to be very attractive, yet she is not his idea of the "ideal" woman. He is open to the fact that Misako has found another lover, Aso. In fact he encourages her to be with Aso as much as possible and he looks forward to the divorce. She is unhappy with him and he thinks it will be good for everybody to have the situation resolved. The problem is their son Hiroshi. They do not want to tell him about these things, and yet somehow he must eventually be told. And so everything drags on, unresolved. Undoubtedly Hiroshi already understands, but says nothing. A feeling of ennui envelopes everything. The family seems to be quite wealthy, awkwardly being polite to one another with little else to occupy themselves from day to day.
    Kaname considers himself to be "modern" - adopting "western" values. He thinks Misako is an especially modern, elegant woman. But then Misako's father comes into the picture. He has gone through all of this himself, divorcing his wife, Misako's mother, and now he lives with O-hisa, a young woman of only 22 or so, who is a kind of personal geisha to the father. The father is also interested in the traditional Japanese puppet theater. Kaname is fascinated with his father-in-law and with his puppet obsession. He imagines what it would be like being his father-in-law, together with O-hisa, ordering her about in a traditional Japanese way.
    Eventually Kaname and Misako decide to finally tell the father of their decision to divorce. They travel on the train, thinking to just say it and immediately return. But the father-in-law first has a long talk with Kaname, telling him that marriage has nothing to do with the "ideal" woman. Then he convinces his reluctant daughter Misako to go out alone with him to a restaurant for further discussions. In the meantime Kaname is alone in the house with O-hisa who serves him dinner. She rubs him down in the dark bath and then shows him to his room for the night. The father-in-law has bought a traditional puppet for Kaname, and in the dim light of his room, through the mosquito net, he glimpses the puppet... Or is it O-hisa?
    And so ends the story, full of symbolism, leaving the rest to our imagination.

Kokoro, by Natsume Soseki

     According to the Introduction, this novel is one of the most important works of Japanese literature, "known to every schoolchild and read by anyone serious about the nation's literature". It is a story within a story. The outer story concerns a young student, meeting an older man at the seaside resort of Kamakura. The novel was first published in 1914, so I suppose the time is 1910 or so. Japan has experienced dramatic changes during the Meiji period, transforming itself from a feudal society into one of the great powers of the industrialized world. But the story of the book has nothing to do with such things.
    The young student calls his older friend "Sensei", which means the respected teacher. But this Sensei tells him that life is meaningless. People are worthless. Eventually we are told Sensei's story. It is a story of love.
    Years ago, as a student, he lived in a house with a widow and her daughter. He fell in love with the daughter but was afraid to show his feelings. A good friend of his from his hometown, another student, had little money, and so he invited him to also stay at the house of his lodgings. His friend was a very earnest fellow, dedicated to his studies. He considered the life of the mind, of the spirit, to be above all else. The true scholar lives the life of a monk, apart from the world. But then one day the friend confesses to Sensei that he is secretly in love with the daughter. Sensei is shocked. He had planned to ask the widow for the hand of the daughter himself. What can he do? And so he decides to confront his friend, telling him that by loving the daughter he is betraying his principles as a true scholar. And then he secretly goes to the widow to ask her for the hand of her daughter. This is then joyfully announced to the household. The next day, the friend is found in his room dead. He has committed suicide, stabbing himself with a knife in the neck. The suicide note he leaves does not mention the true cause, only praising the good character of Sensei. And so from then on, Sensei lives a life of secret guilt and remorse, visiting the grave every month. He has married the daughter, and they live on into advanced age in a sterile marriage. A puzzle to his wife.
    All of this is related in a long letter to the narrator of the first part of the book. And at the end of the letter, Sensei writes that when he reads it, Sensei himself will be dead, having committed suicide.
    What is the moral of the story? What meaning does it have for the Japanese? Surely a modern Japanese student, even one as fanatical as the friend of Sensei, would hardly consider suicide in these circumstances. Thus the story might be of interest in that it contrasts the morality of previous times with that of today.

The Accident on the A35, by Graeme Macrae Burnet

     This is one of those books that pretends to be the work of somebody else. It starts off with a Foreword, explaining that a package was sent to Raymond Brunet's former editor containing the present manuscript. (We note the similarity of the name Brunet with Burnet.) Then at the end of the book is an elaborate "Translator's Afterword", describing the "real" life of the fictitious author, together with various theories about whether or not the events described in the novel were actually part of his life.
    It really is a simple story, but very nicely told. A man, Bertrand Barthelme, drives his car one night along the A35 motorway in France from Mulhouse to Saint-Louis, driving off the road, crashing into a tree and killing himself. He was a lawyer in Saint-Louis, living in a large house with his young wife, Lucette, and son, Raymond. An unpleasant man. Everybody seemed to hate him. Both his wife and son were, if anything, relieved to be rid of him.
    The story is told mainly through the perspective of Inspector Gorski of the local police. A weak man. He reads in the paper of the exciting murder of a prostitute in Strasbourg and gets in touch with the important Chief Inspector of that city. Can there be a connection? The lawyer colleague of Maître Barthelme has suspiciously removed all the papers from his study. But Raymond does find one fragment of paper, containing an obscure address in the city of Mulhouse. And so all these threads are woven together, and we read on to see what happens.
    One thing which struck me as being almost absurd is the way Raymond goes on and on about how he thinks that Saint-Louis is a dead-end. A backwater, far removed from anything in the real world. We imagine that French school children may grow up with maps depicting France alone, with white blankness outside the borders. This is similar to the situation in the USA, where the form of the northeastern bit suggests a small peninsula up at Maine, but then, when looking at a more comprehensive map, we are surprised about the fact that the land really continues on in a bulbous manner through New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
    And so Raymond wanders aimlessly about in Saint-Louis, following a few streets in a northward direction. Feeling confined, far away from everything.
    Given that the world only consists of France, and that if you were to step over the border then you would fall into a bottomless vacuum, never to be seen again, then I could understand Raymond's feelings of despair. But in reality, if Raymond had decided to wander for a few minutes in a southward direction he would cross the Swiss border, and in a few more minutes he would be in the center of Basel, a beautiful city which many would rate far above the boring Strasbourg.
    Why did the real-life author, who is a Scott, not French, depict Saint-Louis in this way?

His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet

     Again we have a story which is supposed to be based on newly found documents relating to some historical incident. And then the book is a collection of those documents, written by the the fictitious protagonist. In this case, the main part of the story was supposed to have been written by Roderick Macrae in 1869 in a jail cell in Inverness in Scotland. We note the fact that "Macrae" is, at least apparently, the middle name of the real-life author.
    Instead of inventing imaginary places for his story, the author gives us a very real geographical setting. Namely Culdie, a collection of houses along a lonely road on the west coast of Scotland, just south of the little town, or settlement, of Applecross. Out of curiosity I clicked into Google Street View, and I found that they did run one of their camera cars along the Culdie road. The Macrae house in the book is the one at the northern end. Here is the link to the Street View site, where you can look around at the house which is standing there now. It's a small house, but perhaps not uncomfortable. Traveling along the Culdie road via Street view we find some quite nice houses, but at the south end we come to the house which in the book belongs to Lachlan Mackenzie. It seems to be obscured by bushes, and there are a couple of cars and an old trailer parked about the place.
    The scene in 1869, if we are to believe the book, is much less pleasant. Dirt floors. Pigs, cattle, hens living in the houses alongside the people, and those "houses" are built of mud, the roofs are reeds. They are dark, stinking, filthy. Such, apparently, was the life of the "crofters" of those days. Working the small parcels of land between their houses and the sea, producing a few potatoes or whatever, and continuously paying rent to the "Laird" who owned the land.
    In the story, the person responsible for the Laird's estate was the "Factor". But he considered himself far too important to have anything to do with the primitive, sub-human crofters. Instead they elected a "Constable", one of the crofters, who then reported to the Factor.
    In the story, Lachlan Mackenzie was elected Constable, an evil man who enjoyed tormenting the Macrae family, particularly Roderick. He rapes the sister with impunity. The father is humiliated and the basis of the existence of his family is ruined.
    It must be dreadful to be in a situation like this with no recourse to any degree of natural justice. Perhaps there are many people today in the world who are similarly suffering. For Roderick, the only course of action was to kill the Constable.
    And then we have the imaginary records of various officials in the community. The village priest writes that the whole degenerate Macrae family are ungodly heathens. But the school teacher writes that Roderick was the best pupil he had ever had. And then we have the arrogant, opinionated James Bruce Thompson, who was a real life "scientist" in those days, telling us about the degeneracy of the lower classes, their genetic inferiority, and particularly his own superiority above all. Here the author paraphrases the actual writings of that creature.
    It was a sobering read. But at least we see that in the 150 years between the time of the story and now, judging from the houses to be seen at Culdie, life seems to have improved.