books2020

This year (2020)

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


Nigel Hinton:
    The Heart of the Valley
Mike Gayle:
    Half A World Away
Rodney Stark:
    God's Battalions
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Some re-readings
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Yangsze Choo:
    The Night Tiger
    Ghost Bride
Stephen King:
    11.22.63
Kate Atkinson:
    Transcription
Kathryn Hughes:
    Her Last Promise
Diana Johnstone:
    Circle in the Darkness
Wilkie Collins:
    The Woman in White
    The Moonstone
    NoName
    Armadale

The Heart of the Valley, by Nigel Hinton

     The heroine of this book is a bird, a "dunnock", something I had never heard of before, but apparently the more common name is the "hedge sparrow". The story takes place somewhere in the English countryside, near a couple of farms. And we follow the drama of this little hedge sparrow through a year of its life.
    There are so many of these little birds peeping and tweeting away, particularly in the summer. All sorts of different species, yet they all look pretty much the same to me. Not like the birds of Australia which are very distinctive. But how do they survive this horrible northern European winter? We hang seed dispensers from the the branches of trees in the winter, resulting in much activity in the garden during these cold, wet, muddy months. And somehow the tiny birds survive. Then in the spring and the summer the air is filled with their calls. But we have remarked on the fact that in recent years there seem to be fewer bees and butterflies compared with a few years ago. Is it all that glyphoast which the farmers are spraying everywhere?
    The book starts off in the winter. Many of the birds die of cold and hunger. But then our little sparrow finds a mate, and they take refuge and some warmth in a barn. When the warmth of spring returns they make a nest in a hedge directly next to a driveway, which is soon destroyed by a car squeezing by another car and scraping the hedge. Then they try somewhere else, later in the summer.
    The story then shifts to Africa. We follow the trials of a cuckoo, flying for days across the desert, then across the Mediterranean Sea, and France, to finally arrive in the woods near our sparrow's farm. And so the drama begins. The horrible cuckoo baby kills the sparrow babies, one after the other. But with the advantage of having hatched a couple of days earlier, and with much endurance and agility, one of the sparrow babies survives.
    Indeed, I hate the sound of those cuckoos. Germans make quite a fetish out of their rules and regulations for hunting, so I suppose they must be a protected species. But what is the good of such parasitic birds?
    Well, I suppose all of these things are relative. After all, the sparrows themselves live by eating up all the insects and worms that they can find. Such is the struggle for life. The thing that I don't understand is why sparrow evolution has not advanced to the point of being able to distinguish a cuckoo baby from a sparrow baby, which would enable the grown-up sparrows to rid their nest of such little monsters.

Half A World Away, by Mike Gayle

     The story is concerned with adaptation. For one reason or another, children are sometimes left without parents. They might then be put into a strange family and brought up as children of the new family. Or, usually less happily, they are put into some sort of institution for dealing with the situation.
    In the book, things start off with a mother who has lost herself in a drug-induced haze and various, more or less violent male partners. She has two children: Kerry, an eight year old daughter who is more or less looking after the two year old son. She is keeping herself and her baby brother alive using desperate measures. But then they are taken into care. The baby son is adopted by a wealthy, open, friendly family near Primrose Hill, and he thrives, eventually becoming a barrister in the law courts of London. He has changed his name to Noah. Kerry was put into a home with other orphans and has now become a cleaning lady, privately cleaning other peoples houses for some small, minimum wage, living in a London slum.
    Kerry remembers her brother well, but the adoption people do not tell her how to get into contact with him. Only if he were to contact them would they release such information.
    We follow Noah and his problems in marriage. He seems to be an almost perfect husband to his wife, and father to their daughter. But his complaining wife says that he is not sufficiently open. He does not talk to her enough. And so she wants a divorce.
    Is she being unreasonable? Aren't women often naturally more talkative than men? But more than that, we must think about the situation of a person living as an adopted child in a family. The family might be as friendly and loving as can be, but in the background is the unspoken thought that the ties are not so strong. If things go wrong might the adopted child not be just as easily returned to wherever it came from? I can well imagine that adopted children become careful, guarded, cautious with their families. And this could become a basic way of dealing with life.
    Unfortunately the book then became a gushingly emotional story about the sister developing cancer, finding the long lost brother using a detective agency, deceiving him at first about her motives (ensuring that Noah becomes the guardian of her 10 year old son), and then dying and being eulogized by everybody, including the brother. I would have preferred to find out more about what Noah's wife was thinking, and what Kerry really thought of her brother without all of this unrelated drama.

God's Battalions, by Rodney Stark

     This is not a novel, instead it is a brief history of the Crusades. The subtitle of the book is, "The Case for the Crusades", thus telling us that they were justified in some way. Indeed, thinking about the books I have read, from Gibbons vast history through to a book describing the Crusades as written down by contemporary Arab observers; throughout all of these writings we have the impression of primitive, violent hoards, invading peaceful, civilized lands, leaving chaos everywhere. Was Pope Urban II nothing but a wild rabble-rouser at Clermont, addressing a mob of ignorant peasants on the 27th of November, 1095?
    Or is all of this just a distortion of things as they really were? Did Gibbon become carried away with his anti-clerical posture? And was it only natural that the Arab inhabitants of the lands being invaded thought of themselves as being civilized and the invaders as brutal aggressors? What were the causes of the Crusades?
    Going back further in time to the year 600, we find that most of the Mediterranean world was Christian. And judging, for example, by the Confessions of Saint Augustine, people were free to think in various ways about philosophy and religion, continuing the open tradition of ancient Rome. People went on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, perhaps out of curiosity, or religious fervor, or to atone for their sins. Then, around 620 Mohammad appeared on the scene, preaching religion but also becoming a warrior, uniting the tribes of Arabia, first through attacks on caravans and later in pitched battles. The Arab warriors who came after Mohammad quickly conquered many further lands, including Jerusalem.
    It is said that the system which developed was tolerant, world-open. Arab learning preserved the "dark ages" from pure ignorance. But is this really true?
    Islam is a utopian system. Yet utopias are always harsh, intolerant. Free thinking cannot be tolerated. What other explanation is there for the fact that of the hundreds of Nobel Prizes which have been awarded in the sciences, only three have been given to people with Muslim backgrounds, despite the fact that almost two billion of the people in the world adhere to that religion?
    Of course the hoards of Arab warriors emerging in the seventh century, riding their camels out of Arabia, were no better than soldiers everywhere. But as Rodney Stark shows, much of what is attributed to the high Islamic culture of the middle ages was due to people who refused to change to the new religion. And while they were tolerated, they were treated very unfairly with repressive taxes and all sorts of restrictions. And the Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem were often attacked, robbed, tortured, killed.
    The brutal, bloody sack of Jerusalem by the crusaders is often compared with the peaceful conquest of Saladin. But this comparison fails to remember the rules of warfare in those days. If a city under siege surrendered, it would be spared. Otherwise everything would be destroyed; the men killed, the women and children sold into slavery. Both the crusaders and Saladin followed these rules. Various cities were subjected to Saladin's wrath, as bloody and savage as anything the Crusaders offered.
    Then there is the sack of Constantinople in the fourth crusade. Yet this becomes understandable when we read of the continuous double-crossing of the crusaders and their colony by the Byzantines, often allying themselves with the Turks against the crusaders.
    And finally we have the fact that these days many Muslims consider the Crusades to be an historical evil, a crime which for a millennium has been left to fester and eat away at the soul of Islam. The Zionists of Israel and the invaders of the United States are said to be crusaders. The bringers of evil. But in fact this idea of the crusaders as being of great significance was an invention of 19th century Islamic nationalism. The commentators back then, a thousand years ago, considered the Crusades to be a minor affair. If anything, they were a welcome force to counteract the continuing invasions of the Turks.

Some Re-readings

    A painful back condition struck me down for a couple of weeks, and the realization that things will gradually go downhill as age progresses through the seventies and into the eighties. And thus I was in the mood to re-read some of the books I've read over the last few years. A good exercise. Not always reading in order to find out what happens, but to know what happens and to think more about what is happening. This time I was especially moved by Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki. I think it is his best.
    And so this year I suppose I will do more re-readings and less new readings, not bothering to write about them here.

The Night Tiger and Ghost Bride, by Yangsze Choo

     Ghost Bride was Choo's first book, but I read The Night Tiger first. Both take place in Malaya, which has now been named Malaysia after it stopped being a British colony. Ghost Bride is set in the 1890s and Night Tiger in the 1930s. And the author was born in Malaysia of Chinese descent, as are most of the characters in both stories.
    Ghost Bride is certainly a very unusual story. I've never been to China, and I know very little about Chinese culture. But as I understand it, the tradition is to make paper models of various things and then burn them at the graves of the ancestors, perhaps even paper money as well, with the thought that this might help the spirits of the ancestors in the unknown Beyond.
    I had thought that these Asian people generally adhere to the reincarnation theory of death. But the author shows that the after-world is, in fact, just a place where the soul temporarily abides before it is subjected to the judges at the Gates of Hell. There, punishment is determined for the sins of the past life, and after this punishment is extracted the soul then returns to our world in its new reincarnation. Therefore the purpose of these Chinese graveyard sacrifices is to provide those souls which are waiting as long as possible before their passage through the Gates of Hell with everything it takes to make life in this pre-purgatory as pleasant as possible. How dreadful it is to be stranded in the after-world with nothing; no money, homeless, destitute. Such is the sad fate of those whose families neglect to offer the appropriate sacrifices at the graves of the ancestors. And on the other hand, those happy souls whose families burn huge numbers of paper images and even large amounts of paper money live a life of great riches in the spirit world, even approaching the fabled luxuries of a Jeff Bezos or a Bill Gates. Such ideas of the afterlife were exploited by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages in order to extract huge amounts of money from the lower orders of the population. The money was not burned, but rather it was used to support the extravagant and degenerate life styles of the church hierarchy. And as I understand it, the same thing happened when Buddhism descended from the heights of the Himalayan mountains to the riches of lowland China. This is the reason that Buddhism is no longer a popular religion in China.
    And so Yangsze Choo gives us a story, telling us what that other world is really like. The heroine in the Ghost Bride is Li Lan. She is the daughter in a family which was earlier wealthy but which has become impoverished in the opium fumes of the father. He has incurred crushing debts to the powerful Lim family. The only son and heir of the Lim dynasty, Lim Tian-ching has unfortunately died and it is proposed that Li Lan, a still living person, should marry his ghost. She resists, and in the night, in her dreams, she is tormented by the ghost of Lim Tian-ching, driving her almost crazy. She drinks poison and nearly kills herself, lingering for weeks in a half dead coma. During this time her soul wanders about between the real world and the spirit world. It becomes a sort of adventure story. And a love story with Er-lang, a half man, half spirit. Very strange. But I enjoyed the book.
    The Night Tiger is not such a ghost story, although there are ghostly elements in it. It is the 1930s and we meet some of the British colonialists. They are medical types, working in a hospital in a town in the middle of Malaya. For most it is a banishment from the home country as a punishment for the sins in their previous lives there.
    The Night Tiger is in some way the ghost of one of these doctors who has just died. We are familiar with the concept of werewolves. Apparently in Malaya the similar concept of were-tigers existed. Somehow, after death, perhaps if a person was not completely whole, for example if a finger had been amputated and thrown away, or placed in a specimen glass with formaldehyde, then the spirit of the dead body is not free. It becomes a were-tiger, attacking people, or at least haunting them. It can only be pacified if the missing body parts are returned to the rest of the body in the grave within 40 days of burial.
    But there was much more to the book than just this. It was an interesting story, giving us a feel for colonial Malaya before it gained independence. And I enjoyed the book even more than Ghost Bride since I'm not really such a fan of pure fantasy fiction.

11.22.63, by Stephen King

     Apparently the author has written more than 50 books. This is the first one, and probably the last one which I have read. But I do know that he is a kind of cult author with a large following of voracious readers. Many of his books, including this one, have been made into movies or TV series. He must be one of the richest authors in the world, although I can't imagine that his riches would approach the multiple billions of dollars that all those truly rich people have amassed for themselves in our seemingly ever more corrupt modern world.
    Following the American convention for writing dates, the title of the book is the 22nd of November, 1963, the day when Kennedy was assassinated. The book reduces the whole business to a silly nonsense. It is a time travel adventure. The hero, Jake Epping, is a school teacher in a small town in Maine. The time is the summer of 2011. Al, who has a diner in town where Jake often eats hamburgers, sells them very cheaply. It turns out that there is a secret passage in the back cupboard leading to the same town in Maine in September 1958. You can walk down the steps and it is always the same initial scene regardless of what you may have done on your last visit. But when you walk up the stairs back into 2011, only 2 minutes have passed in Al's diner. And during all the years that Al has had his diner, he has been walking down to 1958, buying meat at the pre-inflation prices of those days and bringing it back up the stairs to be sold cheaply, but at a good profit in 2011.
    But then, rather than just going down the steps for a quick shopping of meat, Al, who is, as is the case with Jake, an adherent of the political theory that democrats are good and republicans are bad, decided to stay in the world of 1958, waiting for it to become 1963, and then to save Kennedy from his assassination, and thus changing the world from being bad to being good. So for Al, five years of time have passed, but in the world of 2011, when he re-emerges from the past, only 2 minutes have passed. The next day when Jake goes to the diner for a cheap hamburger after school he is astonished to see that for some strange reason, Al had aged totally from one day to the next, and he was practically dead. So Al told him about his passageway to the past and his plan to kill that evil Lee Harvey Oswald, the presumed killer of JFK. Obviously Al has not succeeded in his mission since, as we know, Kennedy was actually killed on that day. Thus he tells Jake that he must take his place and carry the plan through to success, changing history so that today, Wikipedia would not have this page in its archives.
    After a few fits and starts, Jake does stay in the world of 1958-63. He falls in love with a beautiful woman and they succeed in stumbling onto the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, thus saving Kennedy, but getting the girlfriend shot and killed. Jake decides to return up the steps into the Maine of 2011, two minutes later, but five years older. He finds that the world has been changed in terrible ways. Everything has gone wrong. It seems that even time and space are in the process of descending into chaos. Existence itself is collapsing!
    He learns from a strange man near the bottom of the steps that the only solution is to go down the steps and then return, thus "resetting" the world to its true state. He goes down, but wants to stay in order to meet his girlfriend again and look for a better outcome - after all, love solves everything - but in the end he decides to return up the steps and save the world, the universe, space and time, existence, and everything else. In the final scene he travels to Texas and meets his girlfriend who is now 80 years old and knows nothing about all this nonsense, but he finds her to be still attractive.

    Well, Ok. I'm not averse to an amusing little time travel story every now and then. As mentioned here a number of times, we can even say that the idea is simply a description of the many-worlds theory of quantum mechanics. Each possible "reset" takes us back to 1958, and from there we branch off into a new world which no longer has anything to do with our actual world. The time-traveler has suddenly materialized out of nothing in 1958 with no parents, no birth, no history. But why not?
    I see that Stephen King was also born in the year 1947, just a couple of months after I was born. So maybe he thought it would be nice to revisit the memories of his early teenage years in this story. The hero, in his 1958 existence, soon buys a 1956 Ford Sunliner convertible and enjoys cruising about the place. He compares it to his small Japanese car in 2011, which he hates. And I remember admiring those cars which had a large chrome spare wheel container mounted on an extended rear bumper. I thought that looked really cool and I wanted a car just like that when I grew up. Now I am 72 years old. If I had such a monstrosity of a car I would immediately sell it.

    But the book is not really concerned with pleasant feelings of nostalgia for the elderly. It is very long. I think the print editions run to 700 pages or so. Very long-winded, tedious prose, taking forever to get to the point. It is all about the theory that Lee Harvey Oswald, a nasty, violent, crazed nut acted all alone. I had thought that of the people who bother to think about the JFK assassination, those who still believe in such an unbelievable theory are those who simply refuse to read about the known facts. They would prefer to float about in their happy fantasy-land where the USA remains a peaceful example to the rest of the world of an enlightened "great" society. But at the end of the book, Stephen King, who surely does take the trouble to read various things, gives us a description of what he says are examples of writings which prove this "lone nut" theory. What can he be thinking?
    It seems to me to be the case that people who have become very rich tend to adopt very conservative beliefs. Perhaps they feel that if the world will just remain the way it is, with only few changes, then their riches might be preserved. Upsetting ideas, such as that the USA experienced a kind of coup d'état with the assassination of JFK, leading to ever more bloated spending on ever more wars, are thought of as being vaguely threatening to their accumulated wealth.
    And so he depicts Oswald as a monster. And also that mysterious figure, George de Mohrenschildt, is described as a monster. Motivated by these thoughts and looking about the internet, I found a manuscript which de Mohrenschildt wrote shortly before he either committed suicide or was murdered. The title is "I am a Patsy!". An interesting document, much more interesting than the present book. It seems to be sincerely written. Is it fact or fiction? Who knows what's the truth? Was de Mohrenschildt linked to the CIA as most investigators seem to believe? What role did he have to play with respect to Ruth Paine, and with getting the job at the Texas School Book Depository? And did Oswald really take a potshot at General Walker? The whole thing remains an unresolved murder mystery. The secret files of the CIA were supposed to be released a year or two ago, but President Trump, despite all his bluster and assurances that he would follow the law, caved in, leaving us still in the dark.
    Was the world of 1958-63 better than that of today? Perhaps not. But somehow I have the feeling that not all that much has changed in the last 50 or 60 years.

Transcription, by Kate Atkinson

     What do people do who go to university and study English Literature? Do they all become school teachers? Maybe they go to work in banks or into hedge funds, overwhelming unsuspecting customers with elegant words. Of course if they have gotten their degree at Oxford or Cambridge then they are a step above the rest, and if it is World War 2, they are recruited into MI5. Then after the war, the obvious step is into the BBC, with lots of obscure contacts, making for interesting listening.
    Such was the life of Juliet Armstrong. But she was not a secret agent, parachuted into foreign lands to pretend that she was what she was not. Instead her job was to sit in an apartment in London, fitted out with earphones and recording equipment, listening to the goings on in the apartment next door which had been thoroughly bugged by the technical people of MI5, and then typing out what she was able to hear. What was she hearing?
    Another MI5 agent had ingratiated himself into a small circle of people who were sympathetic with the enemy, Nazi Germany. They were mainly housewives. They believed that their friend, the MI5 secret agent, was a Gestapo agent who was reporting everything over to Berlin, not knowing that it all went into the room next door where Juliet was typing everything out. The little group of pretend Nazis was very dilettantish. The housewives report seeing ships out at sea, or soldiers walking on the sidewalks. And they discuss how wonderful it will be when Hitler finally conquers England.
    In order to liven things up, Juliet is asked to play a more active role, becoming a young member of the group. The goal is to find a secret book, the Red Book, which is thought to be hidden in the house of one of the women, containing some sort of secret information. She visits the ringleader, finds the book but is almost found out, climbing out the upstairs window and down the ivy clinging to the house. While doing so she compromises the English maid of the house, and soon the maid disappears, having been murdered and buried in some hole.
    Then one day one of these housewives stumbles upon the TRUTH about the fact that their apartment rendezvous has been bugged, with, again, very messy results.
    The book jumps into the year 1950. Juliet now works for the BBC, producing Children's Hour. But she receives mysterious, threatening messages. Is somebody out to get her? Is it revenge? Or is it MI5? Has Juliet suddenly become transported into a novel by John le Carré?

Her Last Promise, by Kathryn Hughes

     The narrator has a nice name: Tara Richards. Tara is a figure in the myths of Buddhism. And Tara Air flies from Kathmandu to the airstrip at Lukla in the foothills of Mt. Everest. But all that is neither here nor there as far as this book is concerned.
    We first encounter Tara and her mother, Violet, in very difficult circumstances. They are living in a slum somewhere in London; Tara is a young girl, 14 or 15; Violet is herself well under 30 and she earns money singing, or more?, in sleazy London clubs. In the middle of the night they are kicked out of their room and onto the street by the slum landlord. They wander through the night. But then they are taken in by an old man who has a rundown hardware shop and given a room upstairs.
    Violet finds a new boyfriend. He seems to be rich. A nice house. Will he marry Violet and lead Tara into a new life of plenty? He drives off with Violet to "The Continent" for a holiday, leaving Tara at the hardware store. But they don't come back. And so Tara lives with her grandmother, Violet's mother, in a small English coastal town, finishing school, hoping that her mother will eventually return. She wonders who was her father? But the grandmother only gives her vague, meaningless words.
    Thirty years pass. Suddenly Tara receives a letter from a lawyer. There is a package from some place in Spain, leading to her mother and a resolution of the mystery, accompanied by her old boyfriend from school and revelations about her father. A nice, if somewhat contrived love story.

Circle in the Darkness, by Diana Johnstone

     The book is a kind of autobiography of the author in which she tells us the occasional thing about herself while telling us all about what she has observed of the world. She was born in the 1930s, in Washington D.C. By the 1950s she was a reporter, writing from a "liberal" or "left" point of view, and throughout everything she was always on the side of those who are against war. Since almost all newspapers, television, radio and all the other mass media, particularly these days, are for war, she was reduced to being the somewhat unloved European correspondent for an obscure socialist newspaper in the United States. She was also the Press Secretary for the Green Party in the European Parliament before it was taken over by Joschka Fischer and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, thus amalgamating it with the War Party.
    Given what the "left" has become, I certainly don't think of myself as being left-leaning. The only time I have ever voted in my life, I voted for Gough Whitlam in 1972, and indeed he went on to become Prime Minister of Australia. I admit that there was a degree of self-interest involved since I had been drafted in Australia and I certainly didn't want to be sent to Vietnam. Thankfully Whitlam, the leader of the Labour Party, did extract Australia from that senseless mess and thus I was spared from any unpleasant military experiences.
    Chapter by chapter we are led through all the various episodes of the news for the past 50 years, and the author tells us how she experienced these things. She has written a separate book on the war in the former Yugoslavia. In those days, almost 30 years ago, I saw no reason to doubt the narrative we were being constantly told on the television news and everywhere else. Namely that Serbia was the aggressor, a reincarnation of Nazi Germany, full of concentration camps where the poor Catholic Croats and Muslim Albanians were being tormented. (A strange idea, given that the Serbs were the victims of Nazi aggression in World War 2.)  Thus NATO bombed them to smithereens. Was that a reasonable action? How should I have known anything different? I have never been to the lands of the former Yugoslavia. But Diana Johnstone was one of only very few people who went to Serbia and reported on the facts to her obscure newspaper in America. We learn about a very different story.
    What has happened to the "liberal" press? Of course the television networks have been bought up and conglomerated so that they speak with just one voice, that of the moneyed interests. As I've remarked already here, changes to the Guardian newspaper seem characteristic of what has been happening. For years I subscribed to the Guardian Weekly which was sent to us on thin, airmail paper. Then for a year or two, after getting a laptop computer, I subscribed to the normal Guardian via the internet, reading the daily edition. But now I only occasionally click into the Guardian website. And what's there? Climate Change, fashion advice, articles about sex, feminism, and collections of photos. And also articles telling us why it would be a good thing to go to war with still more countries.
    I am writing this in the middle of the Great Panic of 2020. I wonder how it will be thought of in the future? It is now Easter Sunday, a time when the usual winter flu mortality normally declines to a lower value during the summer months. Looking at the figures on the website for the total mortality in the different countries of Europe, the present situation seems comparable with the flu seasons of  2016-17 and 17-18. But I am expecting to see a spike in the data later on, representing the additional casualties in this bizarre War on Death: suicides, domestic violence, financial collapse, and all the other consequences of the global Lock Down. As with the "normal" influenza, most of the deaths occur in the very old who will soon die anyway. It is not the Black Death!
    Are we living in an extraordinarily hysterical time? Perhaps not. Think of all the cases of mass hysteria, even worse than that of the present, which history presents us with.

N.B. I have found an interesting website called "off-guardian.org". They say that the founders of the website are all distinguished by the fact that they have been censored on and/or banned from the Guardian's "Comment is Free" sections. And indeed, in contrast to the articles in The Guardian, the articles there seem to be well worth reading.

Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White and The Moonstone
 
   These two books were both published in installments in Charles Dickens' magazine All the Year Round. In fact, Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens were very good friends. I read The Moonstone first and then The Woman in White afterwards, although they were published in the other order. Woman in White in 1859 and then almost 10 years later, in 1868, The Moonstone. The two novels are very similar to one another. I had the feeling that the author, after a few years, decided to tell the story again, but in a better way. The complicated plots can be found in the respective Wikipedia articles so I won't try to summarize everything in a long-winded fashion here.
    In both books the story is told by the technique of the various characters telling us what is happening from their points of view, or from the entries in their diaries, successively carrying on the story, from one to the other. In both stories the heroine is at first prevented from exercising her love for the hero, but as the extremely complicated mysteries are finally cleared up, true love prevails. In The Woman in White, the heroine, Laura, is a weak, spineless, rather pathetic character, in contrast with her half-sister Marion, and we are disappointed by the fact that the hero, Walter, in the end, marries Laura rather than the far better Marion. But thankfully the heroine of the Moonstone, Rachel, is a strong, upstanding character, and we finish the story with the satisfaction that the hero, Franklin, who had falsely been placed in a wrong light is redeemed and they marry happily.
    I enjoyed reading both books. Much better than Dickens.

    One thing which struck me was the role the post played back then in the 1860s. These days we have email and instant messaging: WhatsApp, and whatever else there is. I have none of those later applications on my smartphone, but apparently, as I understand it, schoolchildren, even while sitting together, prefer to WhatsApp with one another rather than simply speaking. Perhaps more formal communications these days use email. You have a look at what's in your Inbox, and maybe tomorrow or the next day you might do something about it. Everybody knows that whatever you send off in the email is immediately analyzed by the vast computers of the NSA, MI5, and all those other spying agencies who have gone to the absurd trouble of secretly digging up undersea optical cables to tap into things, using their submarines and so forth, pretending that we do not know about it. Back in the 1860s the system was that there was a "mailbag" in the house which your footman quickly took to the post. There was great privacy. It was a very serious crime to open other people's mail. And often even within a day you got a letter of reply from your lawyer, or your lover or whoever you had written to. Very efficient. Almost as quick and reliable, but much more secure, than today's email. The characters travel on the trains in and out of London on the spur of the moment, quickly getting to their destinations in the country. What a contrast with public transport and the massive traffic jams blocking the streets of today's London.

No Name
 
   At the beginning we have a rich family living in luxury in the English countryside. A spacious house, vast gardens, servants. And in contrast to the usual situation which we expect to read about, we find that the father is extremely wonderful, loved by everybody. The wife is a model of wifely charm. There are two daughters, Nora aged 26 and Magdalen aged 18. Nora is a picture of straight-laced sobriety while Magdalen is full of spirits. But soon tragedy strikes. The father and the mother die within days of each other, the father in a train crash, the mother in the process of childbirth at a much too late age. And so Nora and Magdalen are orphans.
    At first one would think: no problems! All the riches will be transferred to the two daughters through legally binding testaments. But there is an obscure difficulty. The father, in his wild youth, as a soldier in Canada, married a woman who then disappeared down the river to New Orleans. In subsequent correspondence she refused to become divorced. Thus Nora and Magdalen's parents were not married. They were living in sin! (back then in 1860 or so). But that's Ok. Our author, Wilkie Collins, studied law before deciding to become a writer, and so he amuses us with all the ins and outs of the law in a wonderful style which reminds us of the novels of Henry Fielding. Thus, despite the fact that the parents were secretly not married, still, the testament was valid. However, tragically, a few weeks before their deaths, the parents received a letter from New Orleans informing them that the earlier wife was dead. Thus they could marry, becoming honest people. And so they took a secret journey from their country estate to London and became married without telling anyone (who all assumed that they were married in the first place). But, as Collins informs us, the marriage had unexpected consequences. It was apparently the case in those days (but hopefully not today) that the act of marriage essentially created, under law, entirely new entities out of the freshly married people. Thus all legal agreements which related to people before marriage became void and required to be transferred to the new, married, legal entity in order to again become valid.
    For Nora and Magdalen this meant that they were bastards, not even entitled to their surnames, and the family riches of the father, who died without testament or legal offspring, reverted to the brother of the father. Now one would think that the brother, himself a wealthy man, seeing the injustice of the case, would restore the inheritance to the sisters. But no! He was a horrible, rapacious man who soon dies, leaving the whole thing to the even more horrible and degenerate son. Thus Nora is reduced to being a penniless housemistress, charged with taking care of a pair of spoiled young brats in the household of a family which despises her. But Magdalen is made of sterner stuff. And so the story develops in all sorts of complicated ways which are described in the Wikipedia article of this book. In the end natural justice triumphs, the good relatives win and the bad ones lose, and both Nora and Magdalen live happily ever after.
    How the idea of marriage has changed since those Victorian times!

Armadale
 
   Again a very complicated plot. A family somewhere in the Caribbean, wealthy slave owners. A young man visits from England; he is to marry the daughter of the family. His friend has come along with him. But the friend secretly falls in love with the daughter and elopes with her, leaving on a ship. The jilted man follows in the swift yacht of the daughter's family. In a storm they encounter the ship with the daughter and her false husband, sinking. The man enters the ship and locks his erstwhile friend in a cabin, leaving him to go down with the ship and drown.
    The daughter, who is pregnant, is delivered in disgrace to a family estate in England to eventually bear a son, Allen Armadale. The murderous man takes another wife and has a son with her. For some reason which was explained at the beginning of the book, but which I have forgotten, he was also named Allen Armadale. Yet this second son is reviled by his family and he is set out alone into the world as a child. He takes on a strange name, Midwinter. The story takes place years later when the two sons have grown up, not knowing of each other. They meet by chance and become best friends. And there is a woman, Lydia Gwilt, who was the maid of the daughter of the plantation. Owing to an obscure series of deaths, the original Allan Armadale inherits the English country estate with all of its riches. He moves in with Midwinter. He is an honest, simple-minded person, unwilling to take part in the tedious rituals expected of him.
    The main story centers on Lydia. She is 35, Allan only 21 or so. Yet her plan is to become mistress of Allan's fortune by marrying him. She appears in the district, turning all heads with her overwhelming beauty. All men are gasping for breath. Allan proposes to her. Midwinter secretly loves her and eventually marries her under false pretenses. A drooling old man, Mr. Bashwood, worships her. Thus the story proceeds from episode to episode, telling us of Lydia's changing schemes. But to be quite frank I found all of this to be extremely difficult to imagine. In order to protect her questionable identity she spends most of the time hiding behind a veil. We imagine the elaborate, bulky costumes women in Victorian England were expected to wear. Rather like the Mohammedan female costumes of present-day Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan. How could the men discover what Lydia actually looked like? That she was actually almost 15 years older than Allan Armadale. Surely this is also a problem for present-day Arab men. Is it the reason they all seem to want to migrate to Europe where women are not expected to hide themselves in such a way?

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    Well, I have now finished all four of Wilkie Collins' great novels. This leaves somewhat of a vacuum. What am I to do? He did write a couple of novels before The Woman in White, but according to the Wikipedia they are not of the same quality. And then after Moonstone he wrote further, but it is said that his later writings suffer from the fact that he had become increasingly dependent on opium in the form of laudanum, and also he began to think of his writings not so much as vehicles to amuse us but rather to instruct us on such social issues as the rights of women and of the downtrodden. Still, I will try downloading his next novel, Man and Wife, and see what that is like.
    I am downloading these things from Gutenberg.org, but there is a problem here. It is apparently so that internet sites can discover from which country a request has appeared by examining the IP address. Thus if I click into Gutenberg.org, they immediately see that the request is coming from Germany. Unfortunately Germans, as a people, often seem to be overly argumentative, defending obscure points of principle to the point of litigation. And so a German publishing house brought a law suit against Gutenberg.org, asserting that they, and nobody else, held the copyright on some ancient text. Thus to protect itself, Gutenberg.org blocks all requests from Germany. Thankfully I have found a way around this difficulty. By using the Tor browser my German address is masked, providing a way to access the site.