This year (2024)

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

Tan Twan Eng:
    The House of Doors
Robert Galbraith:
    Lethal White
    Troubled Blood
David Grann:
    The Wager
John Banville:
    The Lock-Up
Richard Ford:
    Be Mine
Stefan Zweig:
    Die Welt von Gestern
Michiko Aoyama:
    What You Are Looking For Is in the Library
Stefan Zweig:
    Amok: Novellen einer Leidenschaft
John Banville:
    The Sea
Chibundu Onuzo:
    Sankofa
    The Spider King's Daughter
John Banville:
    The Untouchable
    Marlowe
    The Blue Guitar
Gillian Flynn:
    Gone Girl
John Banville:
    The Infinities
Mieko Kawakami:
    Breasts and Eggs

The House of Doors, by Tan Twan Eng

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

Lethal White, by Robert Galbraith

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

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

Troubled Blood, by Robert Galbraith

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

The Wager, by David Grann

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

The Lock-Up, by John Banville

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

Be Mine, by Richard Ford

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

Die Welt von Gestern, by Stefan Zweig

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

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

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

Amok: Novellen einer Leidenschaft, by Stefan Zweig

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

The Sea, by John Banville

     I started reading Dostoevsky's The Idiot, but gave up about a third of the way into it. The characters are so unpleasant. Everything is obsessed with money. I stopped reading soon after the scene where Nastasya throws a packet of bank notes wrapped in newspaper into the fireplace, expecting one or another of the other characters to grovel in the flames. The packet contains 100,000 rubles. In those days, the ruble was a silver coin, as was the American silver dollar, the English crown, the French franc, and so forth. All of these coins contained similar amounts of silver, and thus they were approximately equal in value. The internet inflation calculator for American money only goes back to 1913, the year the Federal Reserve System was created, initiating this modern phenomenon of inflation. We learn that the value of a dollar today has been reduced to only about 3% of its value in 1913. Thus we can think of Nastasya's packet as if it contained about three million of today's dollars. Perhaps those Russian, Ukrainian, and indeed American oligarchs of today would similarly enjoy throwing such a packet into the fire at a party in order to observe the spectacle of people burning their hands, producing a few laughs for the spectators. It might be that the book emerges from all of these unpleasant scenes somewhere in the remaining two thirds which I did not read. Perhaps Dostoevsky's prose in the Russian language gives the story a sense of meaning, especially in the character of Myshkin. But this translation into English which I downloaded from Gutenberg.org, while being clearly and simply formulated, lacks all character.
    And so, looking for something more stylish, I read The Sea, by John Banville. It won the Booker Prize in 2005. Despite that, it was an enjoyable, coherent read. And Banville's prose is so wonderfully stylish. It is a simple story. The narrator is an old man whose wife has died. It is Banville's Ireland. He remembers a summer holiday he had with his parents 50 or more years ago when he was a young teenager. He befriended a family which had rented a large house for the summer; his parents could only afford a tiny cottage. He secretly falls in love with the mother of the family, and then with the daughter. The transition happens as he is swimming "between two of the green-slimed concrete groynes that long ago had been thrown out into the sea in a vain attempt to halt the creeping erosion of the beach."
    What is a groyne? The Wikipedia can tell us. Without knowing what they are called, I have spent large parts of my life walking, or running, or even swimming between groynes. If you had asked me before reading this book what these things are called, I might have struggled to call them jetties, or perhaps breakwaters, or something. But what an image Banville's sentence gives us for the adolescent imagination. We think of groins. Green-slimed! and the fascinating Chloe.
    Groyne is not the only word I didn't know when reading this book. There were 20 or 30 words, or perhaps much more I had to look up. Many were not in the dictionary of this Kindle. Those that were were often obscurely associated with French or Latin words. Questions for those of us lacking a classical education.
    It was a wonderfully nostalgic book, especially for old people with memories of the sea, with a surprising, enigmatic ending.

Sankofa & The Spider King's Daughter, by Chibundu Onuzo

     The author is a Nigerian who moved to London at 14 for school and university. Her first book, The Spider King's Daughter was published when she was only 21. But I read her latest book, Sankofa, first.

    The narrator of Sankofa is Anna, a mixed-race woman of perhaps 45 years old who has lived all her life in London. Her mother was a woman of Welsh descent, very white, and her father was a West African, very black. But she has never met her father, in fact she knows practically nothing at all about him. Her mother has died about six months ago, and now Anna is going through her things, finding a dusty trunk in the attic. It contains a notebook, or diary, which was written by her father, Frances Aggrey, during the 1960s when he was a student in London. He is a native of "Bamana" in West Africa. Don't try to look up such a land in Google Maps. A reviewer at amazon.com tells us that he/she is familiar with the various geographic details of those regions, and that the imaginary Bamana is, in fact, modeled on Ghana, a country which does exist. In the diary Anna is told about the racism of the English in the 1960s. He is a quiet young man, but he is befriended by other African students who meet and speak about independence, communism. He writes about how he meets the sister of Anna's mother, and then he falls in love with her mother. He must quickly return to Bamana; was it that someone in his family had died? He promises to write, but there the diary ends.
    Gradually Anna learns more and more about her father. How he had fought in the jungle for the independence of his country, how he became a politician and was the President of Bamana for many years. He had assumed a different name, the two middle names of his full name, and he is now a famous and respected elder figure in Africa. She travels to Bamana, accompanied by a professor from Edinburgh, a Scott who was also involved as a student in those communist circles back then in London, and who maintains contact with his old friend, the President. They travel to one of the palaces, or presidential villas, and after passing numbers of guards they have a pleasant lunch on the veranda with the great man, looking out on the peaceful garden. He asks Anna what she is doing in Bamana, and after she tells him he immediately stands up, practically shouting for them to get out. He is insulted that his friend has brought this imposter with such an invented story. But a week later she is summoned from the hotel and ushered into another palace where he tells her that he accepts that she is his daughter. He has read the diary, and he has had the glass she had been drinking from tested for DNA, proving his paternity.
    She would like to return to London, to her daughter and her more or less separated husband, on the flight she had booked. But there is a problem at the airport. She is suddenly thrown into prison. It has become a nightmare.  And then she is let out. It was a terrible misunderstanding. But it wasn't. Her father did not want his daughter to simply go away, as if Bamana, her homeland, was nothing.
    Is she trapped? Her father takes her on a road trip around the country, showing her what he has done, what his country has become. The people worship him, although he has sometimes exercised cruelty. Some call him the Crocodile. After all, how could a president otherwise stay in power for 30 years in a country whose borders were fixed by ignorant European colonial powers, cutting across the boundaries of ancient empires.
    The book ends with dream-like scenes, Anna understanding and accepting her father and her role as his daughter in Bamana along with his other children, each of whom travel the world in various roles. And so she returns to London, a different person and an important citizen of Bamana.
    It was a very enjoyable book to read, but I'm afraid the basis of the story is sadly implausible. We think of similar African visionaries: Patrice Lumumba, or Muammar Gaddafi. Here is a list of African leaders who were assassinated. It is a long list, and many were the victims of the CIA or the similar secret agencies of the French and the British. The President and father of the story does well to be surrounded by armed guards and fortress-like residences. But the influence of the U.S. and the European powers seems to be decreasing rapidly in the world, so we can hope that the countries of Africa and the other areas which have been dominated by these powers will begin to develop a true independence in the future.

    The Spider King's Daughter is a less pleasant book to read. It has to do with the "rich kids" of Lagos. Abike Johnson is 17, she lives in a huge mansion and is driven to and from school in a chauffeured SUV. When the car stops at traffic lights, or slows down in traffic, "hawkers" approach, knocking on the windows, wanting to sell various forms of junk. Abike is fascinated with one of these hawkers, whose street name is "Runner G". He speaks with a refined British accent, just as she does, although he speaks the language of the street with the other hawkers. She wants to have him. He is invited into the mansion of her family, past the countless guards, into the expansive property. It turns out that he was also a rich kid, but his father died in a traffic accident, leaving the family with debts, throwing them into poverty. What does all this have to do with Abike's evil, corrupt father? Things end in a cathartic explosion.

The Untouchable, by John Banville

     This one is about the English spy, Anthony Blunt, and more generally the Cambridge spy ring, of which he was a member. They were together in the 1930s, in the inner sanctums: the Apostles, and all that. The book cannot really be considered to be an historical novel about Blunt since some of the attributes of the narrator, Victor Maskell do not match that of the spy. For example Maskell marries and has two children before discovering his homosexuality. The real Blunt went straight in, presumably experiencing the furtive, random excitement of public toilets, reeking of urine, and the casual, quick sexual gratification which I can hardly imagine but which fills large parts of the present book. Looking at the photo of Blunt in the Wikipedia, he looks weak, slope-shouldered, with a face which has been dragged down by the gravity of his life. Although his role as double-agent, spying for the Soviet Union, was discovered certainly in 1963, but perhaps already 10 years before, shortly after the defection of Burgess and Maclean in 1951, he was never prosecuted, and his past was only made public by Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Such are the advantages of being an insider, a member of the "Deep State", confidant of the Queen and lover of high placed and established homosexuals.
    On the other hand, as with the real Blunt, Maskell began studying mathematics at Cambridge but found it to be too difficult, changing his studies to the History of Art. Well, I am sure that I would also have failed the traditional English tripos regimen; I hate exams. But what a contrast. The book is filled with waffling about art, undoubtedly true to the character of Anthony Blunt. In particular about the French renaissance painter Nicolas Poussin. The real Anthony Blunt actually wrote numbers of books on the subject of Poussin. I suspect that the author, John Banville, is himself a Francophile, and the existence of Poussin, while having a name which allows numbers of suggestive word-plays which the author playfully enjoys, also proves that there did exist a school of renaissance painting in France.
    The characters in the book are continuously drunk, hungover, lungs filled with tobacco fumes. What tedious people they must have been. And Banville's elegant prose and humor only occasionally lighten the narrative. In one scene in the book, the Blunt character is conversing with his secret Soviet contact, casually naming a British spy embedded high in the hierarchy of the politburo. He is told about the consequences of this revelation. The spy will be arrested and slowly tortured to death. Does he have misgivings about this? But the Blunt character, ever the egoist in his pampered life, says it is the fate which a spy can expect and deserve.
    I briefly tried to associate the fictional characters of the novel with the real-life members of the Cambridge spy ring. According to the Wikipedia, even such people as Baron Rothschild may have been in it, and in the book one of Maskell's close friends is Leo Rothenstein, an immensely rich Jewish character. In the book he lends Maskell £100 in order to buy the imaginary painting "Death of Seneca" by Poussin. In real life the real Nathaniel Rothschild lent Blunt £100 in order to buy the real painting Eliezer and Rebecca, a copy after Poussin, which Blunt kept for the rest of his life. It is said to be worth £100,000, which, according to the inflation calculator, would exceed by ten times the amount Rothschild gave him in the 1930s. The original painting by Poussin is in the Louvre, and is therefore, of course, priceless.
    While all of this comes across as being unpleasantly sleazy, I imagine that the present day people in the CIA, MI6, and all of those other ugly agencies are even incomparably more cruel and sleazy than this.

Marlowe, by John Banville

     John Banville clearly had lots of fun writing this one. It is a Philip Marlowe story written in the style of Raymond Chandler. A tough "private dick" in the L.A. of the 1950s. It is wonderful how he can change his style from one book to the next. What could be a greater contrast between this one and The Untouchable, which I just read before? It is more convincing than William Boyd's Solo, which was a James Bond novel, meant to be written in the style of Ian Fleming.
    But Banville does depart in various ways from the original. Chandler's slang of the 1940s includes various derogatory words which refer to women, such as "broad", "babe", "looker", and so forth. In the age of "MeToo", the modern author would use such words only at his own peril. On the other hand, Banville describes Marlowe climbing into bed, and indeed having sex with his female client, something which Chandler certainly avoided at his peril back then. But of course both then and now it has been acceptable to describe horrible acts of violence, even torture, in a cynical, matter of fact way.
    I suppose the actual plot of the novel is secondary to the atmosphere. But as with some of his Quirke books, Banville leaves a few threads of the plot unresolved to the imagination of the reader.

The Blue Guitar, by John Banville

     This one is about adultery, hardly a shocking subject in the modern world. Many people say that adultery is normal; that it is abnormal to remain faithfully together in a marriage, particularly when the married couple are continually in conflict, no longer having loving feelings for one another, even replaced by feelings of hate. If the married couple has children then there is more to the marriage than just the two spouses. Adultery, divorce has serious consequences.
    In the present story we have two childless, middle aged married couples. Everything is related from the point of view of Oliver, one of the husbands. He is a painter who has achieved a sufficient success that somebody has actually written a monograph on his work. But now the muse has left him. He no longer paints. Life has become meaningless. His best friend is Marcus, who repairs wristwatches, peering at them through magnifying glasses using tiny watchmakers tools. Marcus' wife is Polly who has secretly longed for the heroic, artistic Oliver to replace her boring husband. We read little about Oliver's wife Gloria until the end of the story, where she makes her dramatic revelation. At the beginning, and through the story, both couples are childless.
    All of this is the perfect setting for Banville's elegant, witty prose. Oliver is at first reluctant to give in to Polly's urgent advances. And when he does he is overcome with guilt. Marcus visits him in his disused artist's studio, telling Oliver, his best friend, that he suspects that Polly has become unfaithful. What can he do? Who can it be? They drown his sorrow and Oliver's secret guilt in a bottle of whiskey and further alcohol at the local pub. The story continues to the end with more characters and twists of the plot, giving an enjoyable read and many more opportunities for the author to confuse us with obscure Latin words.

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

     A change of pace. No obscure Latin or French; not one unfamiliar word in the whole book, just simple Anglo-Saxon language of the American variety. The book was mentioned in one of the blogs of "Simplicius", an anonymous internet entity whose writings I often enjoy clicking into and reading. He (I assume that it is a he) was writing about the degeneration of modern writing, citing the author of this book as someone who has had the courage to risk offending her readers.
    The story of the book involves a married couple, Amy and Nick. Amy's parents are rich, having written a series of books in the series "Amazing Amy". They describe a wonderful character, Amy, who is a child in the first few novels of the sequence, and who gradually grows up, novel for novel. These books are in all the school libraries of the United States, and many people follow them, being amazed at everything Amy does. Therefore the real-life Amy lives a kind of distorted life, living up to all these amazing things. Is she so amazing?
    Nick is also pretty amazing, given the difficulty of being married to such an amazing woman. He loves her completely. But then Adversity strikes. The latest novel in the Amazing Amy sequence is a flop. Her parents have made some bad investments so that they are now bankrupt. They borrow much of what remains of Amy's trust fund, leaving her with just a few tens of thousands of dollars. Nick and Amy can no longer afford to live their lives in New York, the sophisticated Big Apple, the Big Smoke where Amy has been admired by all the Beautiful People. Instead they move to Nick's old home town in the middle of fly-over country, on the Mississippi in Missouri. Nick and his sister borrow the remaining money of Amy's trust fund in order to open a bar in the run-down town. The name of the bar is The Bar. It seems to be doing well. All those Midwestern hicks come in to drink their beers and have a loud, wild time while Amy sits alone in the old family home, thinking bad things about Nick and everything else. Since Nick was a writer in New York, fired, since nobody wants to read all the rubbish in the legacy media any more, he has been given a part-time job at the local community college, giving lectures on how to write. One of his students is a young woman who throws herself into his welcoming arms.
    And so one day Nick returns home in the middle of his fulfilled life to find the house apparently ransacked, blood on the floor, and Amy missing. Has she been kidnapped? Has she been murdered? Where is she? Her devastated parents fly in to the fly-over local airport to join Nick. The police are everywhere. Is Nick a suspect? The story is front page news in the legacy newspapers and it is the subject of emotionally charged woke and not so woke talk shows on American network television. The story takes us through twists and turns of the plot. I read on and on, hardly putting it down, wanting to know how things turn out. But the final twist of the story seems to me to be extremely implausible.
    During his youth, Nick had loved his mother and hated his father, who hated all women, loudly shouting obscenities at them. During the drama of the story, Nick's father is a demented, embittered old man. I imagine that after the final twist of the plot Nick now understands his father, and perhaps he will similarly turn into a bitter hater of woman.

The Infinities, by John Banville

     On the surface it is a simple story. A famous elderly person, Adam Godley, is lying in bed, paralyzed with a stroke, dying. It is a country house. His son, Adam Jr., comes, together with wife Helen. There is the elderly wife of the patriarch, Ursula, who drowns her sorrows, even those she had when Adam was still coherent, in drink. The daughter, Petra, is somewhat insane. She enjoys cutting her arms with a razor. And then a young dandy arrives who wishes to write a biography of the great Godley, together with another strange character who was apparently some sort of a colleague in earlier times. These people interact with one another in predictable, shallow ways. It is certainly not a book which encourages the reader to read onward from page to page, eager to find out what happens next. I wondered why I continued to read on to the end.
    The deeper story - only vaguely hinted at in a very few passages - was that Adam Godley was a physicist, making some sort of breakthrough in the world of knowledge. To be frank I seem to have missed some of these passing snippets, only realizing what they were when reading the Guardian review of the book which I have linked to above. Owing to the fact that modern physics is formulated in terms of differential equations on manifolds which do not have closed solutions, physicists say that the solutions have "infinities". They were dealt with 70 or 80 years ago using "renormalization" theory. Similarly, in those days something called the "many worlds" theory was proposed. A misunderstanding of the role of probability in physics. This seems to be a favorite with authors of literary books who would like to spice them up with seemingly esoterical words and ideas from the world of science. Thus Adam Godley imagines that at each instant, the Universe splits apart into an infinity of possible alternative worlds.
    The world of this book has split apart from our real world in various ways. Cold fusion, that dream which seems to have been thoroughly debunked, exists in this world. Cars simply fill up with seawater and drive about in the direction of infinity for nothing. Sweden is war-like rather than pacifist and neutral (in fact, to the dismay of many, at the time I write this, in our real, existing world, Sweden has recently decided to discard its tradition and instead go on the warpath, joining NATO). In this alternative universe the theory of the evolution of species, and also the theory of relativity are false. I missed these points when reading the book, otherwise I would have stopped before going on to the end. And so we can thank the sharp-eyed Guardian reviewer for bringing these things to our attention.
    The story is partially told through the narration of Hermes, the ancient Greek god. He is accompanied by his father, Zeus who, we are told, as with all the gods is unable to interact directly with humanity, yet still he lusts after the beautiful Helen, Adam Jr.'s wife, giving her erotic dreams and motivating the dandified biographer to kiss Helen while sitting on a bench in the woods, after which, Helen administers a severe slap to the biographer's face, leading him to leave this whole deathbed scene in a huff.
    All of these elements give Banville the opportunity to fill his pages with elegant and obscure literary prose, but for me he was taking it all a bit too far in this book.

Breasts and Eggs, by Mieko Kawakami

     When reading this book I had the feeling of intruding on something which was not meant for me; could my intrusion cause offense? But still, the world remains sufficiently free for me to be able to download the book and to read it, and write whatever flippant thoughts might pass through my mind at this moment. There are hardly any men in this book. Just a few violent abusers of women as well as some further unpleasant male characters. Otherwise it is about women struggling against the difficulties of life and of the world; even the children and babies in the story are girls. No boys.
    The protagonist is Natsuko, who is living in Tokyo. She tells us about her difficult, impoverished childhood. The father did nothing except to lie about in their tiny, squalid apartment, drunk, abusing her mother. The mother with children secretly escape to some other suburb of Osaka where she works nights at a bar, entertaining the rude, primitive male clientele. Natsuko and her sister help earning a few pennies by washing the dishes. But all of that is in the distant past. Both the mother and the grandmother have long since passed away.
    The book consists of two parts. In the first, shorter part, Natsuko is perhaps 30 years old. She is making a modest living as a writer of short pieces for newspapers and magazines. She is working on a novel, but is making no progress on it. Her sister, who continues the tradition of working as a barmaid in Osaka, comes to visit Natsuko, together with her daughter. The sister is in her late 30s. She is obsessed with the idea of having breast enlargement surgery. The purpose of the visit to Tokyo is to either have it done, or at least to visit some clinics where it could be done. The daughter, who is just entering puberty, finds the idea disgusting. She also finds the idea that she must soon start having periods every month, ovulating, producing blood and eggs, to be equally disgusting. And so we have long meditations on all the different methods of breast enlargement and, as far as the daughter is concerned, the properties of human eggs; the fact that mammalian eggs, in comparison to birds eggs, are so tiny that they cannot be easily found. She tells us about various ways of looking for them with a magnifying glass or a microscope. All of this gory detail is certainly something that I had not encountered before in a novel. An embarrassment. Hardly a pleasant subject. More a subject for a medical treatise.
    Well, O.K. But why do some women want to have their breasts enlarged? The idea seems to me to be horrible and disgusting. Can they really believe that by doing so they become more attractive? Am I alone in finding the idea repulsive? Fashion models, who are considered to be the ideal of attractiveness, are thin, with small breasts. Women athletes, active, fit, healthy people, generally have small breasts, just as they have no excess fat in the rest of their bodies. And active, healthy men also have little fat, unlike, for example the "man boobs" exhibited by such a person as William Henry "Bill" Gates III.
    Part One ends with the sister and the daughter screaming at each other in an hysterical fit, smashing all the considerable number of (hen, not human) eggs from Natsuko's refrigerator on each others heads, after which, the next morning, they depart on the train back to Osaka. It is unclear whether the sister has, in fact, had her breasts enlarged or not. We hope not. And so begins Part Two.
    It is now 7 or 8 years later. Natsuko is herself in her late 30s. She has published a novel with moderate success. She had had a boyfriend many years ago, perhaps back in Osaka, but she had found the sexual act to be so unpleasant as to exclude it, as well as the boyfriend, from her further live. She wonders how she will be able to live on into the future, alone. A fellow novelist - of course without husband or (male) partner - has a baby girl, and Natsuko thinks it is wonderful to hold it, to play with it, smell its intoxicating aroma. She wants a baby of her own. How can she get one?
    We learn that in Japan, donor sperm is not officially allowed for single women. Natsuko becomes obsessed with the idea of artificial insemination. There are online things you can click into; send them some money and they send you an anonymous packet of human sperm. There are men who advertise themselves in the internet, offering to impregnate you either using artificial insemination or else the natural method. Natsuko has a rendezvous in a café and it turns out to be a little fat man with a large hairy wart on his face. He tells her at length about the properties of his semen; how it has been tested, how vigorous it is, and he tells her about how wonderful his penis is. He seems to be grasping under the table to show it to her. She has been paralyzed with horror and fear throughout the meeting, but now she jumps up and flees, distracted, only stopping when she is far away. 
    And then there are people who are the products of anonymous sperm donors. They grow up believing somebody else was their father and are shocked and devastated to learn that it was all a lie. They spend the rest of their lives endlessly and hopelessly seeking their true fathers. In Japan all records of donors are destroyed. As I understand it, in Germany, according to recent law, such children have the right to learn their true parentage. Male donors, perhaps medical students who had long ago donated sperm, must live in the fear that apparent strangers will start coming out of the woodwork, demanding hundreds of thousands of euros for failing to pay maintenance costs of their lost childhoods. Will the often arbitrary, politically correct German legal system support such claims? As a result, donors are drying up and childless couples are perhaps turning to the internet, or to the chaos of Eastern Europe.
    Natsuko meets and has long, intimate talks with Aizawa, a man who has been the result of such a donation and whose life is devoted to trying to find his biological father. Aizawa seems to be overcoming his obsession, falling in love with Natsuko. He writes many messages to her which she ignores. But then they do come  - chastely - together for a day in Natsuko's old hometown of Osaka. And he asks her if she will bear his child.
    The story skips a year or two and Natsuko tells us how horrible the birth was, yet she loves her baby girl. Aizawa is, of course, out of the picture. He is off somewhere else looking after his sick mother with presumably no visiting rights, and Natsuko is thankful that she has nothing more to do with him. (As far as I know, this would not be possible in German law.) But at least in the future her little girl will be able to learn who her biological father was. What an unpleasant, hopeless vision of life this is, and what an egotistical, self-centered woman.