This year (2019)
Previous years: 2018;
Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi
The Great Believers
Love is Blind
Min Jin Lee:
Free Food for Millionaires
Sound of Waves
Sea of Fertility
The Temple of Dawn
The Decay of the Angel
Robin P. Williams:
Swan of Avon
Song of Achilles
Anatomy of Dreams
Last Thing I Saw
House on Vesper Sands
of the Dunes
House Between the Tides
Robert Louis Stevenson:
Master of Ballantrae
Boakye was a real-life person who
lived from 1827 to 1904, and this is the story of his life told not as true
biography but rather as a kind of historical novel. When reading the book as
a novel, the story sometimes seems rather contrived, difficult to believe.
And yet in an Afterword the author explains how he has used the personal
letters of Boakye and his correspondents, along with many further historical
documents, so it must be true to life.
Boakye's father was the king of Ashanti, a kingdom on the
west coast of Africa in modern day Ghana. And thus he was a prince. But he
was not the crown prince. Instead his cousin, Kwame Poku, the son of the
sister of the king, was the crown prince owing to the fact that in Ashanti,
inheritance was passed down through the matriarchal line.
At the beginning of the story, Kwasi and Kwame are very
close friends, doing everything together. They live in great privilege in
Ashanti as princes, telling us about their lives, and we see them contrasted
with all the slaves in the community. There is a Dutch military presence
which had been organizing the slave trade, a fort to hold the slaves which
had been bought from the local slave traders before they were shipped off to
the Dutch colonies in the Americas and elsewhere. Kwasi's father was much
involved in this.
But then Kwasi's father,
the king, decided to send both Kwasi and Kwame off to Holland with a Dutch
expedition which had reached their country, presumably in order to allow
them to become educated in the ways of Europe and so bring back this
knowledge to Ashanti. Thus the two young princes, perhaps 10 or 12 years
old, were transported by the Dutch navy to Holland where they were
enrolled in a small private school.
They were treated as
princes. Being guests of the Dutch royal family, becoming intimate friends
with one or another of the Dutch princes and princesses. And they became
highly educated. Somehow the ties with Ashanti became weaker. Kwasi
gradually thought of himself as being Dutch, rejecting what he remembered
of the life in Ashanti. But Kwame returned. Staying in the Dutch
settlement on the coast, he sent written inquiries to the Kingdom, asking
if he could come home. But he had forgotten his native language and so his
letters were written in Dutch. The King thus refused to answer and wanted
nothing more to do with him. After years of vegetating as a guest in the
Dutch garrison, he committed suicide.
Kwasi on the other hand
remained in Europe, going on to university in Germany, becoming a mining
engineer. He was then sent by the Dutch to Indonesia to be involved in
mining operations. But this was extremely unsatisfactory. His superior was
an old school rival who treated him badly. He was unable to obtain
advancement in his profession. Eventually he learned that the Dutch
authorities had decided that it would not be appropriate for an African, a
non-European, to be in a leading position in the colony of Indonesia since
it was important to maintain the idea that only Europeans could be allowed
to be leaders.
And so much of the book
takes place towards the end of Kwasi's life in the tropics of the East
Indies, not East Africa. People still respect him as a true prince. He has
had a family and children. But somehow he is not fulfilled. Perhaps he
could have remained in Europe where he could have followed his profession
more successfully as a mining engineer.
The story imagines an
astronaut, endlessly circling the earth in the international space
station. He has a euphoric, almost religious feeling during a space-walk.
But then Houston calls and he is told that his daughter has been killed in
a car accident. Furthermore his wife has decided to leave him, going off
to live with her parents somewhere far away from Houston. He is devastated
by all this, becoming wracked by migraines, unable to fulfill his duties
in the space station. Only after weeks of delays due to technical problems
with the launching of rockets was he able to be sent back to the earth.
And so we meet him in his
empty house in some soulless, half developed suburb of new houses
somewhere in the neighborhood of Houston. His wife had cleared everything
out, leaving him with a gigantic sofa which he hated. She also left a bare
bed and the basics of the kitchen. But he goes to the local diner to eat
hamburgers and drink coffee.
He is alone. Splitting
headaches. He drinks lots of beer. He notices a loud-mouthed foreigner,
perhaps drunk, at the diner making inappropriate remarks to the young
waitress. And then there is a young woman, a mother, wearing tight-fitting
clothes, grabbing his attention in the newly built house near to his,
separated by a couple of vacant lots. Eventually he winds up in her bed.
There are strange scenes. Her business-suited husband returns from some
sort of business trip or other and greets him as a friendly neighbor. But
it turns out that while the astronaut was up in space he slept with the
The loud-mouthed man at
the diner turns out to be an immigrant from Slovakia where he was a
technical assistant at an observatory. So he and the astronaut spend late
evenings out on the next weed-infested vacant lot, sitting on the sofa
which they have moved out there, drinking beer and occasionally looking at
stars through an old telescope set up on a tripod.
The astronaut meditates
about his treatment of his dead daughter. He considers that he has a
special relationship with numbers. They all have different colors for him.
And his daughter experienced that too. So he imagines that she was a
genius. But he has pushed her too far. She was supposed to go to a special
school for geniuses and devote herself to calculating astronautical
things. Despite the fact that she was a "straight A" student in her
(normal) high school, she defied him by becoming a cheerleader. And so he
went off to space, endlessly circling the world, and she drove her car
into a tree, having had too much to drink.
This depressing story was
redeemed by the idea of floating through space.
by Michael Ondaatje
This one takes place in
England just after the Second World War. The story is narrated by
Nathaniel, who is at first 14 years old. We are not told what the family
was doing during the war, but now his parents tell Nathaniel and his
sister that they will be leaving for some time, going to the Far East.
Singapore or something. The father leaves, the mother stays on for a few
extra weeks and then leaves as well. They are not left alone at home.
Instead various strange characters seem to inhabit the house.
Nathaniel takes on a few
odd jobs. He washes dishes and gets to know a waitress a few years older
than himself and we learn of his erotic introduction to sexual affairs.
One of the strange characters about the house is given the name of The
Darter, and he seems to be involved in smuggling greyhounds into England
in the dead of night in order to manipulate the dog races. Nathaniel
becomes very much part of The Darter's affairs, eventually thinking of him
as a kind of replacement for his father.
Suddenly Nathaniel and his
sister are attacked by some unexplained, mysterious people, and all the
mysterious people who had been living at his house, together with his
mother who appears from nowhere, save both his sister and him.
Then the story progresses
10 or 15 years to the late 1950s. Nathaniel has been recruited into the
British Secret Service. He works in a mysterious, anonymous office
building in London, working in the archives. He secretly looks up the
files on his mother. The story is that after the end of the war she was
involved in covering up the war crimes committed by the British,
eliminating people who might prove to be an embarrassment to future
Well, the book was nicely
written and it was fun to read of Nathaniel's adolescent adventures. The
rest was a bit too mysterious for me. Undoubtedly though, such things are
true to life.
Michael Ondaatje is the
author of The English Patient, which was made into a famous movie. I did
see the beginning of the movie on television years ago, but after a half
hour, the arrogance of the main character put me off and I stopped
The story is concerned
with the (male) homosexual scene in Chicago in the 1980s. Everybody is
homosexual, dying of AIDS. The one exception is a young woman, Fiona, who
is the sister of Nico whose funeral introduces us to the story at the
beginning of the book. Fiona becomes the caring sister figure to all of
these vulnerable young men.
In order to brighten up
this dreary story the author has developed a number of subplots. Yale, not
the name of the university but rather one of the "gay" men (to use the
currently politically correct euphemism), is employed in an art gallery
attached to one of the universities in Chicago. He receives a letter from
an old woman, Nora, who happens to have been a great aunt of Nico, living
up in Wisconsin, somewhere along that peninsula north of Green Bay. She
explains that she was living in Paris back in the 1910s and 20s, dabbling
in art and serving as a model for a few famous artists: Modigliani, and so
on, and that they gave her a number of drawings and paintings in lieu of
money. She wants to give it to the art gallery. But her family thinks that
these things might be worth lots of money and so they would like to sell
them on the open market - a very reasonable idea, given the ridiculous
prices such things fetch.
So Yale drives up,
together with his boss who, although married, is of course secretly
homosexual, and, during a later trip also with Roman, the post-doc student
assigned to Yale who is more or less secretly homosexual.
And then, finally, the
book jumps back and forth between these doings in Chicago in the 1980s and
Paris in 2015, where Fiona, now a mature woman, is seeking her long-lost
daughter, Claire. This subplot seems to have even less relevance to the
story except perhaps in that Claire hates Fiona owing to the fact that
Fiona, pregnant with Claire, unfortunately missed the final dying moments
of Yale due to the impatient Claire who chose just this moment to be born.
And so Fiona, who really didn't want to be pregnant in the first case, did
not really love Claire as a child.
All of this AIDS and HIV
business led me to again click about in the internet, and I found a very
interesting newer documentary which can be viewed in full in Youtube.
Namely House of
. A young fellow tells us at the beginning that all his
life, AIDS and HIV have been constantly talked about. And so he wants to
find out what these things really are. He interviews Luc Montagnier, the
discoverer of the HIV virus; Robert Gallo, who went on American national
television to proclaim that HIV is the cause of AIDS; Kary Mullis, who won
the Nobel prize for the invention of the polymerase chain reaction, which
is relevant to the western blot HIV test, and many other experts as well.
The person at the WHO who is responsible for all AIDS statistics, and so
forth. He submits himself to an HIV test in South Africa. Then is told by
leading experts in Germany and in the US about all the different tests and
why there is no definitive test.
The puzzle is that,
although we were told in the 1980s that we would all be dead of HIV and
AIDS by now, in fact we are still alive. In fact, contrary to what we were
told then, and contrary to the hysteria in this book by Rebecca Makkai,
HIV is, according to a bulletin
issued by the CDC
(the Center for Disease Control of the United
States) for doctors, "no longer defined as a communicable disease of
public health significance".
In the film House of
Numbers, Luc Montagnier tells us that he no longer believes HIV alone
causes AIDS. Instead, "cofactors" are needed. So what could these
The film examines some
possibilities. During the 1970s and 80s, when homosexuality was declared
to be no longer illegal, many young men went to these centers, in San
Francisco, New York and Chicago, and lost themselves in an orgy of
self-indulgence. In order to make anal intercourse less painful they
continually sniffed "poppers", alkyl nitrites, which while producing a
euphoric feeling also had the effect of relaxing the sphincter muscle.
While attending the parties and bath houses of the scene, other drugs:
heroin, cocaine, liquor... flowed freely while the men coupled with
a hundred or more different men each month. Dysentery, even cholera became
rampant, not to mention the usual venereal diseases, and yet the orgy went
Is it any wonder that the
result was AIDS, and that people who live a moderate life, whether they be
homosexual or not, do not develop AIDS?
But there is another
candidate as cofactor which is perhaps even more potent than these
"recreational" drugs. Namely AZT
and the other "antiviral" drugs. For example in the film, a woman explains
that she had tested "positive" to HIV in one or another of the tests. She
joined a group of women who had thus been deemed to have the stigma of
AIDS. As I recall, there were 17 women in the group and of those 17 only
she and two others refused to obey the urgent advice of the doctors to
take their antiviral medicines. Now, years later, just three of the group
are still alive. Namely the three who refused the medicine. Many similar
cases are also dealt with.
Could it be that many, if
not most cases of AIDS are caused by the medicine which is supposed to
cure it? Obviously this is a question which society cannot tolerate.
Imagine the consequences if say the World Health Organization, WHO, were
to declare that AZT was one of the main causes of AIDS. Sorry. We
apologize for our understandable mistake of judgement. Please forgive us.
An impossible idea. And so
anyone who questions the received HIV -> AIDS hypothesis, regardless of
how famous and distinguished they may have earlier been, must now be
labeled an absurd, insane conspiracy theorist who believes that the earth
is flat and the moon is made of green cheese. There is a long list of
famous professors who have thus been stigmatized.
At the beginning of the
book, Brodie Moncur is working as a piano tuner for Channon, a Scottish
piano firm in Edinburgh, in 1896. He is summoned to the office of the
owner of the company and offered a job in the Paris branch. And the story
develops from there.
He falls in love with Lika
Blum, a beautiful Russian woman who is together with John Kilbarron, a
famous concert pianist. There are many twists and turns of the plot.
Brodie travels about Europe with Kilbarron, Lika, and Kilbarron's menacing
brother Malachi, setting up and tuning Kilbarron's concert grand piano to
Things become dramatic in
St. Petersburg and at a nearby country dacha. Malachi finally finds Brodie
and Lika together in bed in the village hotel; Kilbarron's piano is
sabotaged before the opening concert, exposing him before the assembled
Petersburg aristocracy. There is an early morning duel with pistols by the
Neva river, the escape from Russia. And then we follow Brodie in the years
that follow. He is lonely, thinking only of the lost Lika. And finally he
ends up at the other end of the earth in the Andaman islands.
Everything William Boyd
writes is enjoyable to read. His style can be so varied. Some of the
reviewers have aptly compared the present book to a Chekhov story.
According to the
description at amazon.com, this book lies in the category of "thrillers".
There are various possible ways to interpret the word "thrill". Some
people say that they are thrilled by something if they find it to be good.
A common exaggeration of everyday speech. On the other hand I think that a
movie which is categorized as a thriller could be expected to be filled
with hectic, abrupt images and changes of scene, wild movements, loud
music and crashing noises. But how can a novel be a "thriller"?
I wasn't thrilled by the
magnificence of the plot or the dialogue. It was indeed easy to read, but
not thrillingly so. But it did have many unexpected changes in what we
thought the story was about. In the end all of the loose threads do make
sense and we see that the characters are not at all what we thought they
were. So it was a fun read.
Therefore to summarize the
plot as we believe it to be through most of the book...
The "silent patient" is
Alicia Berenson, an artist, whose husband is Gabriel, a photographer. They
seem to be a happy couple, but at the beginning of the book it seems that
Alicia has murdered Gabriel, shooting him multiple times through the head.
Afterwards she speaks no more. Has she gone mad, suffering some psychic
illness which inhibits speech? Or is she simply play-acting, consciously
refusing to speak?
While awaiting trial,
presumably out on bail, she paints an interesting picture, a self
portrait, with the title "Alcestis". This is the name of a Greek
by Euripides, first produced in 438 B.C.
The main character though
is Theo Faber, a psychotherapist. He is also the narrator, and so we learn
lots about him without at first understanding why he is telling us so much
about himself. He also tells us about his efforts to understand Alicia and
get her to start talking. Perhaps she will tell us what the story of
Alcestis has to do with the murder.
The author is a Korean
living in New York, as are practically all the characters in this story.
They were born of parents who immigrated to the United States some time
ago, perhaps in the 1960s and 70s. They are highly educated: Harvard,
Yale, Princeton,... and we follow them as they advance into their
professional lives, with lots of ups and downs in the Big City. With the
sole exception of Elle, they are all extremely sexually promiscuous, yet
they are hard working on their way to success. Reading what the author
tells us in her website or on the blurb of the book, she seems to be
describing for us, in outline, her life up till now. The main character is
Casey Han, quite different from Elle, who we follow for a number of years
after her graduation from Princeton in her various jobs and affairs in New
I very much enjoyed the
book, reading on to find out what happens to Casey. But there is no great
dream, no unexpected twists of the plot. So I suppose one could say that
this is a "Bildungsroman". If anything, the author is just trying
to tell us what it is like to be a young, second generation Korean living
in New York City.
Indeed, I have read that
these days the smartest students at MIT, Cal Tech, Stanford, and all the
rest are Asians, in particular Koreans.
When I first came to
Germany in 1975, after finishing my degree in Canberra, I had only a
rudimentary grasp of the language and so I decided to take part in a
course of German for Foreigners which was being offered at the University.
But perhaps the main reason was that I thought that it might be possible
to meet some Japanese or Koreans who would be interested in playing the
game of go. There were no Japanese in the course, but I did get to know a
Korean, and we kept in touch for a number of years.
Of course he was very much
better at go than I was. As I recall he was studying sociology, which
meant nothing to me, but in 1976, just after Jimmy Carter was elected to
be President of the US, my friend asked me to correct the English of a
letter he had written. At that time, South Korea was being ruled by the
oppressive dictator, Park
. Perhaps that was the reason so many Koreans migrated to
the United States in those days. My friend wrote that he represented a
group of Korean students in Germany, and he hoped that Jimmy Carter would
do something to free his country from the oppression under which it
I told him that it was
dangerous and ridiculous to send off such a letter to a politician in
America. At best it would simply be tossed in the garbage; at worst, and
more probably, it would be passed on to the secret police of South Korea.
And yet he insisted on sending the letter. (In 1979 Park Chung-hee was
assassinated, allowing democracy to prevail and rendering the politics of
my friend less dangerous. In fact recently, on a whim, I googled his name
and I see that he is also now an old man, a professor of information
strategy in Korea.)
Through him I got to know
the Korean students here. I remember a couple of times we had the whole
apartment full of Koreans, with 8 or 10 go boards, everybody playing. Many
of them had high dan ratings.
He traveled back to Korea
to marry, telling me about the ceremonies involved, the elaborate
calligraphy, and then he returned with his wife, a very outgoing, happy
person. A year or two later they had their first child.
I particularly remember
the first birthday party. All of the Koreans were there and we were the
only "westerners". The first birthday is considered to be very important.
Up until then it was thought that the baby was still not a complete
person, and so the first birthday party was a welcoming of the baby into
Reading this book by Min
Jin Lee gives a strangely different picture than the one we had of the
Korean students here. They had no thought of remaining in Germany, this
foreign country. They were concentrating on doing well in order to succeed
in the future in Korea, respecting all of their proud traditions. After
some years my friend returned to Korea and I lost track of the others. I
sometimes think of them, what fine people they were.
The story of this book
ranges over four generations of a Korean family, at first living in the
occupied "colonized" Korea of the 1910s and then later in Japan itself,
the homeland of the oppressors. Min Jin Lee describes in endless detail
what the Japanese are like when they are dealing with Koreans. Of course
during the colonial period, Korean society was devastated, life almost
impossible. In Japan the Korean immigrants were treated as filth and we
are told that even today, children of Korean ancestry of the 3rd or 4th
generation are regarded as foreigners, having to register themselves as
There seems to exist a
kind of schizophrenic perception of Japan, at least for we non-Japanese.
For example I once read somewhere that as an exercise in German - Japanese
relations, young schoolchildren were asked in the respective countries to
draw pictures of what they imagined things were like in the other country.
The German children drew pictures of smiling children with cherry trees in
blossom, pagodas, Buddhas and all those other things. The Japanese
children drew pictures of soldiers, tanks, guns, explosions, everything
crisscrossed with lines representing bullets, blood.
Well, Germany must live
with its past. But the death marches, death camps, tortures, and all the
other horrors Japan inflicted on the lands it invaded during that period
are not forgotten. And the Japanese in general seem to be still unwilling
to acknowledge their past. But to be fair, the sufferings caused by the
European colonial powers should also be taken into account. Not to mention
the brutality of the United States in the Philippines at the beginning of
I have never been to
Japan, and I have only known few Japanese people, so I have no particular
basis for sympathizing with the grim picture Min Jin Lee paints. But when
I was studying at the Australian National University in Canberra,
especially when doing my graduate degree, I did get to know one or two
Japanese. They came to Australia to improve their English. One friend I
knew for a year or two had a name which was well known. One of the big
Japanese industrial groups. He told me that he was indeed part of the
controlling family. We used to play golf together.
In Australia golf is a
sport for everybody. As I remember, the membership of the Canberra Golf
Club, as it was then, cost perhaps 25 dollars for the year. That entitled
you to play as much as you wanted whenever you wanted. What a contrast to
the expense of golf here in Europe! And I think that in those days the few
Japanese students at the ANU thought it would be a good opportunity to
improve their golf game as well.
I also remember taking my
friend down to my parents place on the coast at Pambula for the weekend.
My parents reminisced about their adventures during the second world war,
while my friend had little to say. One day we drove over to the big wood
chip operation on the opposite side of Twofold Bay from Eden. Then, as
now, people were protesting about the fact that native trees were being
chopped up and the chips being sent to Japan to be made into paper. Thus
there was much security about the place. We drove up unannounced, I just
thought it would be interesting to peer at things through the fence, but
my friend seemed slightly angry at not being able to inspect the plant
personally. After all, how were the guards to know who he was? He smoked a
cigarette or two and then we drove back. Writing all this just now brings
back these forgotten memories. And I've forgotten what his first name was.
Then another story is that
I got to know an American who was also doing graduate studies at the ANU.
I even remember his name: Larry Brown. Unlike with me, you will get
nowhere if you try to google it. He was a really nice fellow, a friend to
everybody. I think he was doing physics, or else chemistry. He told me
that he had studied with Richard Feynman, and he had even gone camping
with him: tents, bonfires and all that, out in the California desert.
Whew! Very impressive! Larry was also a very good tennis player and I
could hardly give him a good game. A very athletic, healthy type. He told
me that he was sometimes playing tennis with the Crown Prince of Japan.
Could it have been the current Emperor, Naruhito
who was in Australia as a young teenager in 1974? I certainly never met
the Crown Prince and I wondered if Larry was just telling me nonsense.
But I'm sure it is true
that the Japanese are a very insular people. Perhaps things are changing.
And one must appreciate the myths people in different countries tell
themselves about their existence.
Tanizaki wrote this book
in the 1940s, serializing it between 1943 and 1948. The story takes place
a few years before then, the late 1930s and early 40s, in Osaka and Tokyo.
We read of timeless traditions. The story could just as well have been
placed 50 or 100 years before, or even in the more remote, poetic ancient
times. There is no hint in the slow development of the story, with all its
subtle emotions of the characters, that Tokyo and Osaka will soon be
subject to massive firebombings from high flying B-29s, accompanied by
Mustang fighters. Or of the death camps and all the sufferings Japan was
causing in the countries of Asia which it was occupying. At most, we are
told that the occasional celebration at a restaurant was to be more
subdued than usual in order to respect the "national emergency". There is
no anticipation of all the suicides at the end of the war, and the fiery
obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bombs. The author
preferred to write about more peaceful times and the reader can imagine
that the seemingly bizarre placing of this story in the midst of the War
in the Pacific was an aberration to be best ignored.
The four sisters were of
the Makioka family of Osaka. The father was a wealthy industrialist of
some sort, but now the business is in decline, or perhaps it was sold. One
way or another the family still thinks of itself as being upper class
despite now living in somewhat straightened circumstances. The oldest
sister lives in the "main house" in Osaka, but during the story the "main
house" moves to Tokyo. We imagine that the main house is some sort of
mansion, but then we learn that it is a rather rundown old place in need
of repair. Later, the oldest sister and her family - husband and six
children - move to Tokyo into a totally ramshackle, flimsy house. The
second oldest sister is also married and living in the much more
comfortable second house in Osaka. She has just one daughter who is
perhaps 8 or 10 years old. Finally there is the third sister, Yukiku, who
is still unmarried, and then the youngest sister, Taeko.
The rule is that a younger
sister is not allowed to marry before all her older sisters have married.
And Yukiku is a problem. She is already 30 years old and she has refused
one suitor after the other. Only occasionally now do possible suitors for
Yukiko appear. When they do appear they are "investigated" by private
investigators. For example towards the beginning of the book the
negotiations with one possible suitor go on and on, with formal meetings,
proper ceremonies. After much time, energy and expense has been incurred,
the investigator reports that the sister of the candidate had suffered
from depression some time ago, thus indicating possible weaknesses in the
candidate's family and so ruling him out. During all this, the "main
house" must be asked for permission for each possible step. And the main
house is always slow to answer and is reluctant to make any decision.
Poor little Taeko already
has someone to marry her if only Yukiku would hurry up and marry herself.
She becomes more and more independent, earning money herself by sewing and
making dolls, much to the disapproval of the main house.
We follow all the ups and
downs of Taeko and Yukiku, thinking more and more about how they should
lead their lives, becoming by turns angry and yet understanding of the
main house. I enjoyed the book, reading on to its resolution at the end.
It has nothing to do with war. But in reality I am afraid that the main
house would have been consumed in a horrible firestorm.
The author, with his
strange name, also wrote A Gentleman in Moscow, a book which I
found to be too silly to finish reading. This one was his first novel. It
describes something he knows about - living in Manhattan - and, at least
according to the review in the New York Times, the experiences of the
heroine, Katey, are not so unlike Towles own initial experiences of the
Big City. The story is placed in the late 1930s, the end of the
depression, but still a time we imagine to be more elegant than the
We are told that Towles
was for 20 years an investment banker on Wall Street and that now he lives
in the elegant Gramercy Park district of New York. The story is full of
rich young people traveling about from the "Hamptons" to the City. We have
the feeling that the author panders to these riches. Indeed, I also wonder
what it must be like to own billions of dollars, thousands of millions. We
think of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Was the world of those people in the 1930s
more elegant than that of the rich of today?
A story about modern
billionaires would disgust me, but I enjoyed this one.
A simple story about two
young people on an island in the strait at the entrance of Isa Bay in
Japan into the Pacific. The island corresponds, more or less, to Kami-shima
The boy, Shinji, is perhaps 17 or 18 years old. He is a hand on a fishing
boat which goes out every day. He is strong, upright, honest, a true child
of nature. Hatsue, the girl, has grown up on another island. She has
become an Ama, a traditional Japanese diving
, diving for kelp or abalone, and she joins the other diving
women of the island. The time of the story is just after the Second World
War and we learn that Shinji's father was killed when he was out on a
small, open fishing boat, machine gunned by an American warplane.
is famous not only as a great writer who was nearly awarded
the Nobel Prize for literature, but also for the fact that he committed seppuku
traditional Japanese suicide, in 1970. I had always thought that somebody
who was so fanatical as to do such a horrible thing in peacetime, for
"fun", could not write anything really worthwhile. But this book surprised
me. A wonderfully lighthearted little tale, capturing a beautiful moment
A very dark story about an
aristocratic family in Japan which has become almost destitute after the
upheavals of the Second World War. The narrator is Kazuko, the daughter.
She is about 30 years old and has left her husband to return to her mother
and the family home. The mother has tuberculosis. There is not enough
money for them to stay in the home in Tokyo and so an uncle has arranged
for them to move to a smaller house out in the country. No servants. She
must help, working in the fields.
Her brother Naoji has been
away in the army, stationed in the South Pacific. But he returns to the
dismay of Kazuko. He is a drunkard, obtaining what little money is left
from the sick, doting mother to lose in debauchery with his pals somewhere
in Tokyo. When he is sober, Naoji thinks of suicide, but also vaguely of
literary ventures. He has a friend in the city, Uehara, a degenerate,
obscene man who is a recognized author. And so, in her hopeless anguish,
Kazuko decides that her mission in life is to have a baby from Uehara.
Eventually Naoji does
succeed in killing himself and the mother sinks into a diseased oblivion,
but Kazuko lives on, pregnant with Uehara's baby.
perhaps saw himself to some degree in the character of Naoji.
He attempted suicide many times in his life, becoming an alcoholic, and
eventually he succeeded, dying in 1948.
This is a kind of
"thriller", or criminal novel, dealing with the Kennedy assassination. Or
maybe one might even call it an historical novel, since Kennedy really was
assassinated and we don't know the details. But dignifying the book in
such a way would really be ridiculous. Thus, since I am a great fan of the
more "serious" (a vague term at best) speculations about this whole
business, I was disappointed.
The story is based on the
idea that the New Orleans mobster, Carlos Marcello, alone, with no help
from any other quarter, arranged the hit on President Kennedy. Then,
fearing the wrath of the FBI, CIA, and all those other secret-state
organizations, such as they were back in 1963, he tried to eliminate all
possible people who were concerned with it: the hit-man, the people who
drove the hit-man to the scene of the crime at Dallas, even the man who
drove the getaway car a couple of days before the hit and parked it in a
convenient parking space near Dealey Plaza. All of these people must be
eliminated before the FBI and all those other secret police people could
get to them, and thus get back to Carlos Marcello himself.
So the main character of
the book is a man named Frank Guidry, a low-level lieutenant in Marcello's
organization. He was the one who parked the getaway car in Dallas without
knowing what he was doing. The assassin sent to kill Guidry is somebody
named Barone. Thus the book consists of a corpse-littered chase from Texas
to Las Vegas, with things lightened somewhat by Guidry picking up a woman
with her two small daughters along the way and falling in love with them.
Of course the precise
details behind the Kennedy assassination remain a mystery. But given all
the facts that we do know, for example as explained in the book "JFK
and the Unspeakable
", by James Douglas, it is simply not believable
could have been alone responsible. And even if he, or Santo
, or Meyer
, or some other mobster was assigned the task of arranging the
details of the hit, it is clear that they would have known that J
and the FBI would give them no trouble.
This is a series of four novels which are so closely
linked as to be one single, long story. It takes place in Japan in leaps
of 20 years. In the first novel the time is 1912, then 1932, and so on.
The character Shigekuni Honda is at first finishing his schooling in 1912
with the aim of studying law. In 1932 he is a respected Judge in Osaka.
The upheavals in the second novel cause him to resign his position and
become a practicing lawyer. And they lead to a break from the 20 year
cycle in the third novel, where Honda travels to India in 1940 to be
confronted with mystical philosophy. He has become wealthy and glides
through the Second World War in a world apart, meditating on the meaning
of existence. In 1952 he has unexpectedly become extremely wealthy, his
legal practice having benefited from some technical changes in the laws of
Japan during the American occupation. Then in the final novel, Honda is an
old man. To preserve the 20 year cycle the time should have been 1972, but
the author, having declared that upon completion of this entire work he
intended to commit suicide, killed himself using the horrible method of seppuku
on November 25,
The whole thing is
concerned with reincarnation, the transmigration of souls. Mishima studied
what has been written on this subject and he gives us elaborate
descriptions of the history and the philosophy of the idea. We learn that,
according to one school of Buddhist thought, the soul doesn't exist.
Instead we are all part of the wholeness of the Universe, which is
eternal. Another school of thought has it that after death, the soul
becomes like a 5 or 6 year old child, flitting about throughout the world,
invisible to us, for a period between 7 and 77 days. Eventually, certainly
within 77 days, it sees a man and a woman copulating and, despite being
somewhat repelled by the sight, enters the woman's womb and its next life.
Who knows what awaits us
after death? The author was most impatient to find out. But I'm sure that
most people share my view that there is no need to hurry matters along
more swiftly than would otherwise be the case.
In the first novel, Honda
is a relatively minor figure, being the friend of the main character,
Kiyoaki Matsugae. Kiyoaki seems to live in a dream world and he keeps a
diary, recording all his dreams. Upon his death, Honda is given the diary,
reading of various seemingly prophetic things. And so, in the second book,
when Honda meets the main character, Isao Iinuma, he suspects that Isao
might be the reincarnation of Kiyoaki despite the fact that Isao's
character is totally unlike that of Kiyoaki. His suspicion is confirmed
when he observes a small pattern of three moles under Isao's arm, similar
to the moles on Kiyoaki. These three moles become the sign of the
reincarnation of Kiyoaki through his subsequent lives.
I think I mentioned
somewhere here that the idea of reincarnation does not really appeal to
me. My present life has been so satisfying that any other life would be a
disappointment. On the other hand, apart from the child version of Ying
Chan, none of Kiyoaki's subsequent reincarnations were aware of their
previous lives. Therefore it seems to me that in some basic sense, the
idea of reincarnation is quite unnecessary.
Leaving aside such
esoteric thoughts, on another level these novels describe the feeling of
Japan during four completely different periods of the last century. Times
of upheavals, but also times of suffering for the lands neighboring Japan.
Another interpretation might be that the four different characters of the
reincarnations of Kiyoaki represent four aspects of the individual
character of Everyone.
But before describing the
novels individually, here a small rant:
I began to read these
novels of Yukio Mishima by "buying" the first one, Spring Snow,
via Amazon, having it downloaded onto my Kindle. It cost nine euros and
forty nine cents. But then, when clicking into the Wikipedia to learn more
about The Sea of Fertility, I noticed that at the bottom, under
"External Links", there was a link which, when clicked upon, gave a free
download of the entire sequence of all four novels. Investigating further,
I see that the file was offered by the website archive.org. On the other
hand, Amazon was offering the complete series for 35 euros and 48 cents.
What is going on here?
Will the police come in the middle of the night to arrest me on the
instructions of Jeff Bezos, the world's richest man, for failing to pay
him the remaining 25 euros and 99 cents which he seems to expect? And
anyway, what does it mean to "buy" an ebook via Amazon? The money paid
does not buy anything. Instead I have simply paid for the possibility to
read something on my Kindle which belongs to Amazon. At any time, Amazon
could decide to withdraw this ability, and thus all of these books which I
have been describing for the past 5 or 6 years could simply be permanently
erased. Unlike with a real paper book, I do not have the right to lend it
to a friend, or to sell it, or to give it away.
I do understand that in
the case of a living author, this rental fee paid to Amazon does, at least
partially, find its way to the author. But as we have seen, Mishima is
long since dead. And I don't imagine that any possible reincarnation would
benefit from the Amazon fee. One might think of the translator, Edward
. But he is also no more.
Of course publishers
retain copyright even after the deaths of authors. In the case of real,
paper books, I can understand this. The publisher hopes to produce more
books and then sell them at a profit, thus supporting all the people
involved in printing the books, binding them, distributing them, and so
on. And he would like to secure the right to do this without competition
from other publishers for a reasonable time. But what does this have to do
with ebooks? There are essentially no costs at all. Nobody profits except
for Jeff Bezos and perhaps the apparent copyright holders: Alfred A Knopf,
Inc., or perhaps Random House, or perhaps Vintage Books, or some other of
the names which appear at the beginning of the books. They are simply
raking in the money for nothing. Thus I applaud archive.org for breaking
out of this stranglehold of the established publishing industry.
Of course the situation
with academic publishers is much worse and so I decided long ago to ignore
them and instead to simply make the few papers I have written freely
available on my website in the Faculty. They will thus remain obscure and
unknown, reflecting in some degree the philosophy which Honda encountered
Kiyoaki Matsugae is 18
years old. His father is the Marquis Matsugae, an ultra-rich, but
good-natured man. The grandfather was General Matsugae who distinguished
himself in the Russian-Japanese war of 1904-05. Or perhaps it was the
Chinese-Japanese war of 1894-95. The family lives in a huge estate in
Tokyo. We are told that when the Marquis goes to visit his mistress who
isn't allowed to live in the compound, he must walk half a mile from the
main house to the main gate in order to reach the mistress's house just
outside the gate.
But Kiyoaki is not of a
military character (and his father the Marquis isn't either). He goes to
the Peers School for the children of the aristocracy. Yet he finds the
loud, rude members of the kendo (the traditional Japanese bamboo
sword fighting) club at the school to be in all ways repugnant. At least
he is good friends with Shigekuni Honda who, although not himself an
aristocrat, also attends the Peers School, and he comes from a solid
family, his father being a respected judge. There are also two Siamese
(that is to say, of Thailand) Princes: Prince Pattanadid and Prince
Kridsada, who attend the school and who are friends of Kiyoaki and Honda.
Despite the exulted title
of Marquis, Kiyoaki's family is considered to be nouveau-riche.
Thus Kiyoaki, as a small child, spent much time with the family of Count
Ayakura, a family of ancient aristocratic traditions, in order to become
familiar with the forms and traditions of the aristocracy. As with Count
Ayakura himself, Kiyoaki is vague, arrogant, impractical. He lives in a
world of vivid dreams which often seem more real than reality, and which
he records in a diary.
As a child,
Kiyoaki spent much time playing with Satoko, the girl of the Ayakura's who
is a year or two older than Kiyoaki. But now, when he is 18 and she is
about 20, he has the feeling that she is making fun of him. She professes
to be in love, but he thinks she is really just mocking him. He takes his
anger out on Iinuma, a student who has been engaged as Kiyoaki's tutor.
And so Satoko becomes
engaged to Prince Harunori of the Japanese Imperial Family. She is still
in love with Kiyoaki and writes him desperate love letters before becoming
formally engaged to the Prince, but Kiyoaki has thrown them in the
rubbish, unopened. The engagement is a very serious business. Kiyoaki's
father, Marquis Matsugae, unaware that Satoko still loves Kiyoaki,
undertakes to support the whole elaborate, expensive, tradition-filled
engagement process financially, in order to help the Ayakuras.
But then, in his
dream-like state, Kiyoaki suddenly decides that he is now hopelessly in
love with Satoko. This is the degenerate, irresponsible style of the old
Japanese aristocracy. They meet secretly, passionately, on the beach at
the Matsugae's beach-side villa where also Honda and the two Thai princes
are spending a few days. Then a few days later Honda drives Satoko from
Tokyo and then back, to another secret, night-time rendezvous with Kiyoaki
on the beach. She becomes pregnant with Kiyoaki's child. But this is
And so the book ends with
a secret abortion to avoid scandal, Satoko deciding to become a Buddhist
nun in an ancient monastery, and Kiyoaki dying of a broken heart,
bequeathing Honda his diary of dreams.
It is now 1932. Honda is a
judge in Osaka. The Chief Justice is an enthusiastic practitioner of kendo
and there is to be a tournament, with religious overtones, at a shrine
somewhere near Osaka. But he has an appointment in Tokyo which he can't
put off. So he asks Honda to take his place, making a speech and
supervising various ceremonies.
As a student, Honda had
had only disdain for kendo, that aggressive fighting sport. But now, in a
changed world, he is prepared to be part of the ceremony. When sitting on
the tribune he becomes aware of a young man who seems to be a magnificent
picture of splendid youth. Although only 18 years old, he is already a
third dan master of kendo. He is to lead one team in its competition with
the other team. And one after another, he defeats five opponents in a row,
each with a full-blooded, manly shout accompanying the winning stroke.
Honda is impressed.
Later Honda is invited to
climb a sacred mountain, and on the way down, in order to wash off the
persperation, he accompanies his guide, taking off his clothes and bathing
under a sacred waterfall. He finds himself next to that magnificent youth,
and he notices that he has a pattern of three small moles under his arm,
just like his old school friend, Kiyoaki. And then he remembers what
Kiyoaki had said to him before dying: "We shall meet again under the
The young man is Isao
Iinuma, the son of Kiyoaki's former tutor who has now become the head of
some sort of school to promote the ideals of Japanese nationalism. Honda
is fascinated with the idea that Isao might actually be a reincarnation of
Kiyoaki, and he gets to know Isao, having long talks with him, but of
course not telling him of his suspicions. Isao tells him that his favorite
book is a pamphlet entitled, "The League of the Divine Wind". There
follows a long sequence of chapters, being the text of the imagined
pamphlet. The author, Yukio Mishima, was apparently inspired by the Shinpuren
of 1876 when writing this pamphlet into the book.
I found this a bit tedious
to read, and so I skipped through these pamphlet chapters. It has to do
with a group of samurai who were unhappy with the fact that after the
opening of Japan to foreign trade at the beginning of the Meiji period,
many of the old traditions were done away with. As a kind of hopeless
protest, they attacked an army base using traditional Japanese swords,
losing hopelessly, then committing seppuku as a demonstration of their old
way of life. And so this becomes a romantic myth of an imagined earlier
Japan, a land of purity and honor.
Isao contrasts this with
the Japan he sees in 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression. As
everywhere else, there are many bitterly poor people, and yet a small
number of the very rich. He sees these as a poison on society, polluting
Japan, destroying the ancient customs and traditions. And so he assembles
a group of like-minded students who have the aim of emulating the glorious
deeds of the League of the Divine Wind. Each of them has been assigned a
different one of the hated, ultra-rich capitalists, and on an appointed
day they will strike, killing with a traditional Japanese samurai sword
and then committing seppuku.
This is rather like the
Baader-Meinhof gang (the "Red Army Faction"), or the Italian "Red
Brigades" of the 1970s. They also wanted to kill the evil capitalists and
their fawning politicians. But there is a difference, and this was
illustrated in a scene of the novel.
Before the appointed day,
Isao's gang is arrested by the police and they are taken to jail. They
have been betrayed by Isao's father in the hope that that will save him.
The police are very kind, and even admiring of Isao and his goals. He is
soon released and the charges are dropped. But during one session of
questioning, Isao hears a repeated, dull thumping sound in the distance.
At first he thinks it sounds like a bamboo sword striking the leather
armor of a kendo opponent. But then he realizes that a violent bamboo
stroke on leather has a sharper sound. This is the sound of a prisoner
being systematically beaten. The police officer tells Isao with a smile
that it is one of those horrible "reds" which are being tortured. But
Isao, the perfect, beautiful young man, is one of us; not them.
I am reminded of one of
Naipaul's novels, was it "A Bend in the River"? Naipaul explains that in
Africa it is essential for survival to belong to some group, some tribe,
or family. If you are alone, you are lost. This must be a deep and
essential property of the human condition. And this is why the "reds" can
be so hated.
The "Reds": communists,
socialists, say that we are all equal. All of humanity is the same, and
these artificial groupings should be disbanded so that we will become part
of a single, unified communal, utopian whole. This idea may appeal to
people of a certain disposition (despite the fact that it led to the
millions of destroyed lives under communism in the last century), but it
would seem that the majority of people prefer to be inspired by their
heroic national myths, demonstrating their superiority in comparison with
other nations, or races, and so feeling the protection of belonging to a
strong group of people like themselves.
Honda has resigned his
position as judge in Osaka and become a lawyer in order to defend Isao. In
the end, Isao is free, but unsatisfied. He makes his way to the most hated
capitalist of the land with a sword and a dagger, stabbing the fat little
man, then running out into the night and killing himself with the dagger
in a seaside cave. In his fantasy, the author, Yukio Mishima described the
scene in the last sentence of the book: "The instant that the blade tore
open his flesh, the bright disk of the sun soared up and exploded behind
I wonder if poor Mishima
himself had such a pleasant, euphoric, real-life experience?
It is 1940. War is
breaking out everywhere. Honda has become a successful lawyer and he is in
Bangkok, representing a Japanese firm in a law suit against a Thai firm.
During his stay he recalls the two Siamese princes who were his
companions, together with Kiyoaki at the Peers School, and he thinks about
visiting them. But the Thai royal family has fled in exile to Switzerland.
Except that there is one young princess, Ying Chan, who has been declared
to be insane, and she remains, living in one or another of the palaces
under the supervision of some older women. Ying Chan is the daughter of
Honda visits Ying Chan and
she immediately runs to him, telling him tearfully that she is really
Japanese. She is the reincarnation of someone in Japan, and she begs Honda
to take her with him back to her homeland. The next day they all go
happily to a temple on the outskirts of Bangkok. The young, seven year old
Ying Chan takes off all her clothes to go swimming, and Honda observes
again the sign of three small moles under her arm. He asks her a number of
questions about the details of the lives of Kiyoaki and Isao, and she
knows the answers.
But he doesn't take Ying
Chan back to Japan, even if that were to be possible. Instead, since he
successfully won the law suit for the Japanese company, they offer to pay
for a further holiday, and Honda travels to India in order to meditate on
this whole reincarnation business, the meaning of life and death, and
everything else. There follows a collection of obscure chapters in which
Mishima explains to us various points of Indian philosophy, combined with
all of his thoughts about death.
Back in Japan, Honda has
sufficient private wealth in order to spend the war years simply
meditating on life, death, the universe... It becomes 1952. He learns that
Ying Chan has come to Japan as a student. But she knows nothing about
reincarnation. It doesn't interest her and she has no memory of the
nonsense her seven year old self said on the subject back in 1940. But
somehow, Honda must get to the heart of the matter, find what is in her
Honda has become much more
wealthy, profiting from some investments he had nothing particularly to do
with. He builds a large house with a spacious garden in a summer resort
out in the country. His neighbor, Keiko, is a sophisticated woman, also in
her 50s, and he gets to know her well. His wife doesn't really like the
new house, preferring the old house in Tokyo. They remain childless.
This new wealth and
perhaps all the esoteric philosophy have led to a decline in Honda's
morals. He is a voyeur, going secretly in the darkness of the night to the
, hiding behind trees, watching couples on the grass having
sex. And in his new house he has a peephole in the wall from his study to
the bedroom on the other side. In order to explore the character of Ying
Chan more deeply, he arranges for her to sleep in the bedroom, and Keiko
has organized a nephew to come and try to have sex with her. But Ying Chan
throws him out and flees in the night to Keiko's house. Finally, at a
later party, Honda has success with his peephole, observing passionate sex
between Ying Chan and Keiko.
What is this supposed to
mean? The degeneration of morality in post-war Japan? Or more to the
point, Mishima is describing his basic philosophy; namely that life is
best when you are young and vigorous. If you hang on to life after that
you will become old and degenerate, a hateful, disgusting object. It is
best to commit suicide before that happens.
And so, perhaps happily
for Ying Chan, she returns to Thailand, is bitten by a poisonous snake and
dies at the age of 20 while Honda lives on into the next book and old age.
This book seems shorter
than the other three. It is 1968. Honda is an old man, approaching 80. His
wife has died and he spends much time with Keiko. Two wealthy, ancient
people in a young world of flower power and hippies.
After an evening together
they go to the beach near Shimizu and notice a raised building for
observing the ships coming and going from the harbor. Looking in, they
find the 16 year old Tōru Yasunaga. We have already learned quite a bit
about him. He is an orphan; he is often visited by a strange young woman;
he works through the night, observing ship movements through a telescope,
keeping records, telephoning to the docks.
Honda and Keiko are in
their elegant evening dress, and Tōru wonders what they want, visiting him
like this in his station. He finds Keiko repulsive, but helps her to take
a book down from a shelf, raising his arm and exposing the pattern of
three small moles. Is this the next reincarnation of Kiyoaki?
Honda, who is childless,
resolves to adopt Tōru. And so Tōru, a self-confident but poor young man,
is adopted into the house of a rich old man with the prospect of
inheriting everything upon his death. What better recipe is there for
corruption? And Honda himself becomes more corrupt, resuming his Peeping
Tom activities, being caught by the police, and the scandal reported in
the papers. Thus the situation with Tōru runs out of control, he even hits
Honda with a poker from the fireplace.
Keiko then has a talk with
Tōru, explaining the reason Honda has adopted him, this whole
reincarnation business. She also explains that the defining attributes of
these reincarnations are the three moles and the fact that they each die
at the age of 20. Then, for some reason which was unclear to me (I was
beginning to tire of reading about all this), Tōru decides to kill
himself. He takes a poison which his girlfriend has given him, but it is
only methanol so that he survives, blinded, in a wheelchair, ever more
bitter with himself and the world.
In the end, the ever
weaker Honda resolves to go to the convent in the mountains where Satoko
is the abbess. As with Kiyoaki all those years ago, he refuses to take a
taxi (or rickshaw) all the way up the mountain, and walks - or rather
staggers - the last few hundred meters. The saint-like Satoko eventually
sees him; he blurts out the whole story of Kiyoaki's reincarnations while
Satoko listens in peaceful silence. After Honda has finished, Satoko
calmly tells him that she never knew this Kiyoaki Matsugae. Honda
protests. There are written records, histories which prove that he
She says, "Such documents
might solve problems in the other world. But do you really know a person
She claps her hands and a
novice leads them to a room where they can contemplate the garden of the
convent and the mystery of Satoko's seemingly senseless words.
And thus the book ends,
finally allowing Yukio Mishima to meet his, personal end.
We are left with the title
of the whole: "The Sea of Fertility". What does it have to do with a story
beginning with an abortion and continuing on, describing a barren man and
his fantasies of death?
George Washington Black is, at first, a young boy, a
slave, on a plantation in Barbados. The master is an old man and the
conditions are dreadful, but not totally unbearable. The old man dies and
eventually the two sons of the English family owning the plantation
arrive. The eldest son is horrible. The worst sort of people are appointed
as overseers. The slaves are tortured, maimed, killed. They begin to
commit suicide with the idea that their souls will be reborn in the lost
paradise of Africa. But the brother puts an end to that by chopping off
the head of the corpse of one of the suicides, sticking it on a pole, and
telling the slaves that the soul cannot be reborn without its head.
All of this makes very
unpleasant reading. Undoubtedly there were such horrible things. But it
would hardly be in the interests of the owner of the plantation to treat
his slaves like this. Within a very short time the plantation would have
And I wonder whether the
first generation slaves which still had a memory of Africa considered that
to be a paradise. After all, they were slaves in Africa, either captured
by raiding parties from enemy tribes, or else born into the slave class.
Then they were sold by African slave traders to the European slave traders
on the coast, to be shipped across to the Americas on the dreaded "Middle
Passage". Were the Europeans, and the eventual plantation owners, more
brutal than the African slave holders? Perhaps. In any case the author's
ancestry apparently was free of such experiences, since her parents
immigrated to Canada from Ghana.
But to return to the book.
The younger brother of the plantation owner family, Titch, was an
abolitionist. A scientist. An inventor. And he decided to take on
Washington Black to be his assistant. He taught him reading and writing,
and also drawing so that he could draw specimens. He constructed a
hydrogen-filled balloon, and during a dramatic nighttime storm, they were
both carried away in the balloon to eventually crash into the rigging of a
Thus Washington Black
became an escaped slave, and Titch a criminal who had stolen the property
of his brother. But the year is 1830, and happily slavery was abolished
throughout the British Empire in 1834.
Both fled, via a short
stay in the southern slave states of the United States, to the ice and
snow of northern Canada where Titch's father was a scientist, studying
something there, becoming also a good friend of Washington. But eventually
Titch wandered off by himself in a snow storm, leaving Washington at the
camp. The father dies. Washington moves to the coast at Newfoundland,
meets a famous English biologist, falls in love with his daughter; they
move to London and set up a marine museum. Finally he, together with his
girlfriend, travel to Morocco where they find Titch camping in the desert,
and some questions about his motivations are resolved.
It became a nice,
lighthearted adventure story. Nothing serious. I wondered if the author
was thinking of that book by Olaudah
when writing this one.
As I have learned, there is nothing professors of
literature find to be more offensive than The
. Of course this is concerned with William
Shakeapeare. Did he write all those plays, or didn't he? If you google the
words "the authorship question" then only links to Shakespeare come up.
Nobody questions other authorships. Obviously Dickens wrote Dickens;
Hemingway wrote Hemingway; Samuel Clemens wrote Mark Twain; Sophocles
wrote Sophocles. So why didn't Shakespeare write Shakespeare?
The science is settled say
those professors. If you don't believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare then
you are a cooky conspiracy theorist who also believes the Earth isn't
warming, Lee Harvey Oswald didn't murder JFK, and 911 wasn't the sole
responsibility of the 19 terrorists.
I suppose they want to get
on with what is actually written in the plays and the sonnets. Examine the
characters of the plays, the motives, the background of Elizabethan
England. This is the stuff of Ph.D. theses. All of those conspiracy
theorists simply get in the way of them doing their jobs.
But when I read a book, I
want to look at a picture of the author. I want to know something about
him or her. What was the motivation for writing the book? If I know
nothing about the author then who knows what is behind it? Some anonymous
committee, or perhaps even an inhuman artificial intelligence with no real
feelings at all. Who knows?
In the case of
Shakespeare, if William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon was indeed the
author, then, given the few things that are actually known about his life,
which seem so unpleasant and degrading, then, at least for me, I would be
put off, thinking about entering the mind of such a man. But happily, for
anyone who is prepared to delve into the authorship question, it becomes
obvious that this William Shakespeare could not have been the author.
Surely the best debunking
of the Stratford Shakespeare was given by Mark Twain in his Is
Shakespeare Dead? Look at the semi-literate epitaph on the tombstone
on the supposed grave of William Shakespeare of Stratford on Avon. Look at
his testament. Not a single book is mentioned in the list of his
possessions. The will is not in his hand, although there is some sort of
signature. His wife and daughter were unable to sign with anything other
than an illiterate X. Mark Twain remarks that although no one would
compare him to Shakespeare, still, even in his life, the town of Hannibal
Missouri where he was raised celebrated his life and works with monuments
and celebrations. And even now, Hannibal still remembers Mark Twain. How
curious then that when, 50 or 60 years after the supposed death of William
Shakespeare, the greatest, most famous poet and playwright of his day, the
first of his admirers ventured out into the wilds of Stratford on Avon to
pay their respects, none of the natives had heard of him!
This book describes
clearly the few facts which are actually known, and describes in great
detail the supposed facts which the professors of literature cite, using
such expressions as: "we may suppose", "seemingly", "we can imagine", "it
may be assumed", and so forth. All of this described in great, scholarly
The standard candidates
for the Authorship seem to be: Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, Frances
Bacon, and Christopher Marlowe. After reading Mark Twain's book, I had
thought that perhaps the name "Shake-Speare" might have been a pseudonym
adopted by a group of these possible authors for some reason or another in
order to avoid associating their highly placed names with the London
public stage. Mark Twain sensibly avoided settling on any one possible
author, a subject of mere speculation. Instead he showed how preposterous
was the idea of William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon as the author.
I was surprised to see
that Robin P. Williams thinks that the two long poems attributed to
William Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece,
were actually written by the Stratford actor. Perhaps she is right. After
all, he was an actor, and so he could not have been totally illiterate.
One or two times I have started reading them, but soon got bogged down
with the boring details and gave up. As she writes, these books of poetry
were quite successful when they were first published in 1593-4, going on
through further editions. And they were more popular than the Shakespeare
plays, despite the fact that the style is totally different from all else
attributed to "Shakespeare". Indeed, the historical Shakespearean plays
which were performed before 1593 were not attributed to Shakespeare at
Many people have
concentrated on the Sonnets. What are they about? What do they mean? Was
Shakespeare secretly homosexual? How wonderful! Everybody seems to want to
be a homosexual these days.
And then there are the
great theories. For example I spent some time clicking through this
, which claims to have found the HIDDEN SECRETS of the
Sonnets. But after a while it seemed to become more and more far-fetched.
Then we have the theory
that Edward de Vere impregnated Queen Elizabeth who then secretly had a
baby boy, and the Sonnets are about that. Well. Ok...
This book gives a completely different theory which, at
least for me, totally makes sense. It is that Mary
Sidney, the Countess of Pembroke, was the author. I had never really
heard of her before. (A later Countess of Pembroke was a student of the
viola da gamba, generations later, and that great virtuoso, Carl Friedrich
Abel, wrote some simple sonatas for her which I try to play.) You can read
about the Shakespearean Countess at the website of the Mary
Sidney Society, and of course in this book. There is much more than
can be described here in this already overly long review. It is a
fascinating and convincing theory which provides me with a real human being
behind all those plays, making them come alive.
Fire, by Kamila Shamsie
According to the blurb,
this book is based on the ancient Greek play Antigone
by Sophocles. There, the sister of the disgraced son seeks to bury him
honorably, thus facing dreadful consequences. Here the story is
transported into modern times. It all has to do with Moslems living in
Aneeka is the sister and
Parvais is the brother. They are twins of Pakistani descent, but are
British, having been born in London where the family was not particularly
well off. They have been orphaned after their mother died; the father left
to fight in Chechnya, or Bosnia, or something, back then, 16 or 18 years
ago. A freedom fighter, or an Islamic terrorist, according to ones point
of view. He was tortured to death in Bagram in Afghanistan, presumably
under the supervision of British and American special forces. And so the
twins were brought up by the elder sister. They are not really told very
much about their father.
An up and coming
politician in England, himself a Moslem of Pakistani descent, has just
become Home Secretary. (That is to say, the Interior Minister of Great
Britain.) He says that those who come to live in England should embrace
their new land. They should integrate, not set themselves apart with silly
displays of Islamic folklore, absurd costumes and what have you.
The author equates him
with the evil King Creon of Sophocles' play. This seems to me to be
After all, I have twice
emigrated to live in new countries, and both times I have tried to become
part of the culture, appreciating what is positive and criticizing the
negative. Who am I to set myself off apart from the society in which I
live, pretending that I am of a different, superior culture to the people
I remember the cleaning
lady at the hall of residence where I was at the Australian National
University. She had immigrated to Australia with her family from Serbia,
or Croatia, or something, 20 years before that. I tried to talk with her,
but she could hardly speak three words of English. What was the reason for
such speechlessness? Probably not arrogance. Just laziness, going back to
her husband each day and shutting the outside world away after finishing
her vacuuming. She must have been extremely lonely.
Here in Germany there is a
large Turkish community. They don't seem to be lonely. Again, many of the
women are unable to speak German. They live apart from the rest of society
and so I suppose their children who have grown up here are torn between
the two cultures. Germans tolerate, even embrace this, and accuse anyone
who insists that migrants should integrate into the rest of society of
being a Nazi. This is a symptom of German national guilt.
In the book, Aneeka, who
is just 18 or 20, meets Eamonn, the son of the Home Secretary. He is also
just as young. But whereas she is diligently studying law, he is just
hanging about, living in his own luxurious apartment, paid for by the rich
family, thinking vaguely about what to do. We learn that Aneeka's brother
Parvais has traveled to Syria to join the Islamic Isis. He was recruited
by another Islamic type in London who tells him lots of imaginary tales of
the heroic martyred father.
But in Syria, Parvais is
confronted with brutal reality. He wants to return home. And so Aneeka
seduces the son of the Home Secretary in the hope that he will convince
his father to allow Parvais to return.
We are treated to long
descriptions of the seduction, how Aneeka moves in with Eamonn in his
apartment, and during weeks of intense sex she gets him to want to marry
her. There is a strange kind of eroticism here. How Aneeka prays in the
morning towards Mecca in full Islamic regalia, then in one smooth motion
she discards one garment after the other, finally embracing Eamonn, naked,
except for the head covering. The reviewers of the book - which, after
all, was long-listed for the Booker Prize - apparently were not offended.
Perhaps the fact that the author is a Moslem woman allows all of this to
be politically correct.
In the end, Parvais is
shot dead outside the British Embassy in Istanbul, The Home Secretary does
not allow the body to be returned to British soil. Instead it is sent to
Pakistan, followed by Aneeka, and we are left with a few absurd scenes of
Sophoclean tragedy, magnified and adopted to the hectic, action-jarred
tastes of 21st century readers. The ending spoiled an otherwise good read.
What can I say about this book? It's been a couple of
weeks since I read it and I have forgotten most of what it was about. So
for me it was a forgettable book.
Although, according to
what we learn in Lisa Gray's homepage, she is a Scott and was
the "Press Association's Chief Scottish Football Writer", this book is a
crime story, taking place not in Scotland, but rather in Los Angles.
The plot, from what I remember of it, involves a woman private detective
investigating a murder and kidnapping which happened 20 or 25 years ago.
There are dangerous people who want to get rid of her. In fact she
herself was the child who was kidnapped, or perhaps just taken away to a
safer place. Writing these few words brings more of the plot back to my
memory. It was an enjoyable, quick read. Not quite as brutal as Raymond
This is a retelling of the story of the Iliad in a
simpleminded way for people like me. I did read the original (in English
translation, of course) some years ago, but I found it to be extremely
long and... well... rather boring. Long lists of tedious battles between
one heroic figure and another, governed by the various gods, replete with
long descriptions of the bloody injuries received. I suppose it does
center on Achilles. But one feels that during most of the Iliad he is
simply sitting in his boat, sulking about his injured pride after
Agamemnon has taken the Trojan woman Briseis away from him.
The story of this book
paints a much broader picture. More the feminine point of view rather than
the brutal Ancient Greek macho story. We have the tender story of the
young Achilles growing up together with his boyfriend and lover Patroclus.
Achilles mother, the sea-goddess Thetis, sees to it that her lovely boy is
hidden on an obscure island in order to save him from the slaughter of the
Trojan War. But he is discovered by the wily Odysseus and is brought,
together with Patroclus, to Troy to fight. We read little of the slaughter
of the Iliad. Everything is narrated by Patroclus who becomes a peaceful,
loving medic, attending to the injuries of his fellow Greeks. While both
Patroclus and Achilles, as homosexuals, find women, and especially women's
bodies, to be repulsive, still Patroclus finds affection for the loving,
captured Briseis. Achilles ignores her totally. We are vaguely told that
he leaves the embraces of Patroclus in the mornings to go out and perform
his god-like wonders on the field of battle, but avoiding killing Hector,
owing to the prophesy that Achilles will die when Hector is killed.
All of this seemed so
distant from the brutal Iliad that I wondered if it was all just a silly
fantasy of the author. But no! In the Acknowledgments section at the end
of the book the author lists all of the countless academics who have given
her their authoritative advice on the details of ancient Greek literature.
And indeed, I find that there was a sort of prequel to the Iliad, namely
, a lost
epic poem which tells the story which Madeline Miller is telling us here.
The story is known only in disjointed fragments. Perhaps it can be pieced
together on the basis of some remarks in the few ancient Greek plays which
have survived, together with other writings.
But given that the story
is full of imaginary gods with Superman-like attributes, acting like real
people - the accepted literary form of ancient Greece - it becomes, for
me, nothing more than a fantasy novel lacking the elements of reality
which make these stories interesting.
This one is concerned with the phenomenon of lucid
; being aware of what you are dreaming. I am certainly no
expert on this subject since I (almost) never know what I have dreamed
when waking up. But I do remember a phase when I was a child of having
adventure dreams in which I was the main character, going on from night to
night, and before going to sleep I could influence the story. It would be
nice to rekindle such dreams. But then, also years ago, I remember having
dreamed of situations where I had no clothes on, leading to embarrassment.
Undoubtedly Freudian psychiatrists know all about that.
This book is a novel in
which the narrator, a young woman, describes high school, university, then
working as an assistant for a professor who deals with people who become
violent, perhaps committing crimes, while "sleepwalking". His idea is to
make them lucid, thus aware of their sleeping actions and so able to bring
them under control. But what if such people, when made aware of the evil
within themselves which has been revealed by their dreams, embrace this,
becoming also evil during their waking lives?
On the other hand, most
sleepwalkers are not evil. Just recently the BBC website ran a story about
a man who creates intricate, beautiful works of art when asleep, but who
is totally unable to draw or paint when awake.
In the story, the young
narrator has intense dreams of sexual encounters with her neighbor. And
then the story is that it turns out that the dreams coincide with reality.
She experiences this as if it were a tragedy. For me this was rather an
anticlimax and a non-story.
Still, it was interesting
to think about dreams, sleep, and all those mysterious things which go on
in the brain when our conscious minds are (usually) turned off. Each
morning we awake, refreshed, unaware of what has gone on during the
intervening eight hours.
by Herman Melville
I must have read this book many years ago, since I
remember a paperback with the title on the cover - perhaps it is even here
somewhere, buried beneath other things on the bookshelves. But when
reading it now it was a new and startling experience. How could I have
forgotten such an exciting book?
This is meant to be the
true story of Melville's experiences during his days in the Pacific,
although he does change the names of the characters and of the ship he was
on. The story begins with his whaling ship cruising in the endless ocean,
many months from land. He tells us that the captain was a harsh, unkind
person, and the other sailors on the ship were unpleasant characters.
Everybody was longing for the sight of land. And so the ship came to
anchor at Nuku Hiva
in the Marquesas chain of islands.
We learn about the
situation there. A small French fleet has arrived to take the islands into
French possession. For a number of years, whalers have been landing there
and have established friendly relations with the natives. We are told that
Nuku Hiva, in common with most volcanic Pacific islands, is characterized
by deep valleys, separated by high mountain ridges. And thus the tribe of
people living in one valley is often at war with the neighboring tribe. In
particular the neighboring valley at Huku Hiva was occupied by the Typee
(or in modern spelling, the Tai Pī) tribe. We are told that the Typee were
horrible cannibals, dreadfully cruel, aggressive. They were feared
throughout the Pacific.
The author decides to jump
ship, thus violating the terms of his employment contract with the whaling
company. But he tells us that in his opinion, the behavior of the captain
has already violated the conditions of the contract. A friend on the ship,
Toby, joins him. They walk up into the highlands of the island, through
thick bush. It is raining, foggy. Up at the top they spend the night in
the cold, soaking rain. Then after a day or two they decide to descend
into a valley, unsure if it is that of a friendly tribe or the dreadful
The descent becomes a
dangerous rock climbing adventure with Melville badly injuring his leg.
When they finally reach the valley it turns out that they are indeed in
Typee. They only know a few words of the language spoken on the island. In
particular the words for "good" and "bad". Soon they were surrounded by
many angry warriors, jabbering away in incomprehensible excitement, but
upon saying the magic words "Typee good" and "The other tribe in the
neighboring valley, whatever it was called, bad", the mood changed
totally. Everybody was wonderfully friendly. They were put into the care
of a family. The medicine man came to treat Melville's injured leg.
Everything was provided.
And so we are told about
the life of the people of Typee. A paradise. The food simply falls from
the trees. Most of the day is spent sleeping, dozing, and bathing. The
people are physically perfect specimens. The women are wonderful. He falls
in love with Fayaway, the most beautiful young woman in the world. He is
invited to take part in all the ceremonies of the tribe and is a welcome
visitor to the meeting place of the warriors, where he spends most
afternoons, drinking, feasting, slumbering. And so he tells us about how
superior this life is when compared with the hectic, conflicted life in
more "civilized" countries. If only we could learn to live as the natives
of Typee then we would also attain paradise.
Despite all this, his leg
is not getting better. The disease, whatever it is, continues to fester.
And so he would like to return to the small colony of American and
European people in the neighboring valley in order to obtain medicine,
knowing that his whaling ship has long since departed. Also he would like
to return to his earlier life with his family in the United States. But
all the warriors say no! He must stay. He is not allowed to go anywhere
near the beach.
They do allow Toby to go
in order to obtain medicine for Melville. He disappears, and for week
after week, Melville looks for news of Toby and the outside world. But
nothing happens. He continues to live in this paradise which has become a
We are told about the
various meanings of "Taboo". Melville himself was taboo, and so he had
much freedom within the tribe. Suddenly a stranger appears, a native who
has been on whaling ships and who has lived in Sydney. He is also taboo
and can thus he can move safely from one valley to another without being
killed, and he speaks broken English. He gives Melville a plan of escape,
but it is impractical. Then suddenly, the tribe is transfixed with the
news that Toby has returned. Has Toby really returned? A day of excitement
ensues. Confusion. Shouting. Melville pushes to the beach. Some help him,
saying he would like to return to his mother. Others, the main warriors,
say he should remain. There is a ship, and it sends a boat to the beach.
Melville recognizes one of the sailors. He is suddenly in the boat, and
the sailors are pulling at the oars for their lives against a strong wind.
The warriors of Typee who are excellent swimmers try to grab the oars and
kill everyone. But they make it, and Melville returns to civilization and
later writes his epic "Moby Dick".
I read this breathlessly
to the end. Then looking it up in the Wikipedia, I had to read that much
of it is fiction. For example, according to the book, Melville was four
months in Typee, yet in reality he was only one month there. He describes
romantic paddles on a lake in Typee with the beautiful Fayaway, yet there
is no lake in the valley. And many other incidents are said to be pure
fiction. What a disappointment.
Nevertheless, when the
book was first published, Melville had assumed that Toby had been killed
in Typee. The book became a great success, and so the real life Toby,
namely Richard Tobias Green, became aware of it and contacted the author.
He confirmed that much of the book was, indeed, authentic.
This is at least the third time I've read the book.
First when I was young, then years ago I remember reading it and thinking
how interesting it was as a description of sailing ships, whales, as they
knew about them back in those days, and Melville's interesting views on
all sorts of subjects. Now we were on a three week family holiday in
Portugal and I had loaded the book from Gutenberg.org into my Kindle.
There was lots of time for reading.
But somehow this time I
was unable to appreciate the book. Perhaps I have become more critical,
more skeptical. The long sermon of the preacher in Nantucket left me cold.
Well, OK, Ishmael was to set off for three or four years, cut off from
civilization, with a hardened, brutal crew of men and the insane Captain
Ahab. I suppose anyone would appreciate some sort of divine help under
But then Melville goes on
and on about what he understands about whales. It is almost all false. In
fact whales, and particular sperm whales, are very interesting. Here
is the Wikipedia entry for sperm whales. This is reality, not the nonsense
Melville tells us about as it was understood in 1850. In particular, I was
interested to read that a sperm whale eats as much as 3% of its body
weight each day. And so the total population of sperm whales, numbering in
the hundred thousands, eats about as much seafood as the whole of humanity
presently eats each day. This vast consumption of food from the depths of
the ocean which is then expelled at the surface, represents a huge factor
in the ecology of the oceans, fertilizing the surface waters.
But in the book, the
whale, the white whale, represents the devil. We see none of the beauty of
the oceans, instead we are subjected to a tedious onslaught of verbose
biblical nonsense. In the middle of the book, where the Second Mate,
Stubb, horribly kills the first whale of the voyage, and Melville dwells
long on Stubb's gloating pride and his demeaning treatment of the cook, an
African, I just gave up. Good riddance.
Then reading his
in the Wikipedia gave me an even worse opinion about the man
Herman Melville. He suffered from depression and it is said that he ruled
his family as if he was the captain of a ship, even occasionally beating
Looking about the Portuguese house, there
were a number of old, yellowing paperbacks, some in English. They were
criminal novels from the 1980s. So I read two or three of them, but they
were hardly worth reporting here.
Following an amazon.com recommendation, I downloaded "The Guilty One
Two small boys, about 10 years old, are playing in a park. They fight.
Then later, one of the boys is found dead under a bush. Did the other boy
kill him, or did he go back home to his mother peacefully, leaving his
companion to be later attacked by somebody else? What are the depths of
The story is told through
the perspective of the lawyer who is defending the accused boy. He tells
us about his own childhood. His mother was a heroin addict. The apartment
was chaos, filth, with strange, violent men, often beating the mother. And
so he was taken from the mother even though he loved her, to be placed in
various foster homes. Thus, as a child, the lawyer was himself often wild,
violent, yet vulnerable.
We follow all the details
of the trial. Apparently in England, in contrast to most other countries,
10 year old children can be tried for criminal acts as if they were
adults. It was a good story, and I read on to the finish quickly. What
depths are there to the depravity of children? And even so, how, and even
should they still be punished?
Motivated by the last
story, I then read Ballantyne's "Little
". This deals with another kind of childhood depravity. Nick is
a happily married 30 something, living in London. He loves his wife and
especially his two small children. He is an actor, but as is often the
case in that profession, he is out of work. Therefore he organizes an
acting workshop in a school. Angela, one of the school children, is a
nasty girl who gets into fights with everybody, especially her parents.
She is depressed, even wanting to take her own life. Nick tries to help
her, but, hardly knowing what she is doing, in a fit of self-pity, Angela
tells her mother that Nick attacked her sexually. A lie whose consequences
Angela cannot understand.
Nick's life is destroyed.
He becomes front-page news in all the London papers as a horrible child
raper. He is released on bail with the condition that he may not be in the
company of any children, including his own,unless accompanied by a
responsible adult. Everybody steers clear of him. His mobile telephone,
laptop computer and everything else is confiscated by the police in order
to investigate all the intimate details of his life. And indeed, they find
something. During the days when he was alone at home, his wife at work,
the children at school, he surfed a number of pornography sites. Not those
offering pedophilia which everybody knows are illegal, but rather sites
containing videos of the rapes of grown women. Certainly not a very nice
thing to look at. But on the other hand, at least in England when the book
was written, not illegal. His wife finds out about these internet sites he
has visited, and even in the middle of these legal problems with the
Little Liar, he has continued to visit such sites offering violent sex.
In the end, the truth
about the Little Liar comes out and Nick is rehabilitated, but on the
other hand his wife no longer trusts him and his life remains ruined.
Finally, since Lisa
Ballantyne has, up to now, written three books, I read "Redemption
". This is again concerned with childhood, but in the memories
of Margaret, a grown woman. She grew up in the far north of Scotland. The
author is also Scottish, perhaps not happily so since a number of
extremely disagreeable Scottish characters find their way into the book. A
journalist who is a bigoted religious fanatic. A family of criminals in
Glasgow who torture and murder its victims.
At the beginning of the
book, Margaret is involved in a massive traffic accident in the winter fog
on a motorway. She is trapped in her car, and it starts to burn. A strange
man saves her, then walks away. Who was he? How can she thank him?
It turns out he is in
hospital, in a coma. A delayed injury from the accident. He has a
nondescript name, and the hospital staff tell her that they cannot find
any relatives or acquaintances. But gradually the story becomes clear.
The man is actually
Margaret's father. He was part of that violent family, but he himself was
of a more gentle character. The mother was in love with him, but her
family forbid the marriage into such a violent clan. Instead, the pregnant
mother married a man away from Glasgow, in the far north town of Thurso.
Some years later Margaret is a schoolchild in Thurso, and her real father
can no longer stand being part of that violence in Glasgow. He dreams of
driving up to Thurso, getting together with his old love and his daughter,
and taking them to the other end of Great Britain, to a small house in
Arriving in Thurso, he
sees that his old girlfriend lives in a prosperous house and seems happy
and in love with her husband. He can't imagine that she will come with
him. But he follows his daughter on the way to school. He encourages her
to get into the car with him. Without thinking, he starts driving south.
And so it becomes a case of kidnapping and a nationwide manhunt for the
unknown man who has taken Margaret. The papers are full of horrible
speculation about her fate. It ends badly in Cornwall with the seeming
death of the father. He is sent off a cliff into the ocean in a burning
car near Land's End. But we are told that he escapes, horribly burned,
half conscious, drifting with the tides, to eventually wash up on the
shore near Torquay where he spent months in hospital and assumed a new
Looking at the map, we see
that the distance from Land's End to Torquay, which is way over in Devon,
is at least 150 km as the crow flies. Therefore I was disappointed to
realize that Lisa Ballantyne got somewhat carried away in a flight of
fantasy at this point.
The other question was,
why didn't Margaret remember her adventure with her father? The answer was
that the shock of it all erased her memory. A rather weak answer. And also
everybody assumed that the unknown kidnapper must have done unmentionable
things to the poor little Margaret, thus further submerging any true
In a Prologue, the narrator, a woman, trembling, is
holding a gun to the head of her husband. The husband says "You don't have
to do this", she answers "I have to", he says "Please..."
Then we start reading
chapter one, titled "Before". It's all to do with a nice, loving family.
Chapter four is titled "After". The woman wakes up in hospital, knowing
nothing. It is a psychological hospital. She is pumped full of drugs.
Where is she? When will she be allowed to get back to her loving husband
and son? We read on to find out what happened. There are various twists of
the plot. The manipulative, sadistic brother who missed out on his
inheritance and thus sought revenge. But in the end, I wouldn't really
recommend the book.
Track, by Brigid Wefelnberg
This book is about extreme running. The author tells us
that a marathon is a bit over 42km. An ultra-marathon is a race over a
distance longer than a marathon, but not more than 100km. Everything
beyond that is extreme. She takes part in these extreme events about every
three months and she has been doing it for years, thus she provides us at
the end of the book with a list of all the extreme runs she has completed;
a list with over 50 entries.
At first the book tells us
about the Transpyrenea
run, which is so extreme as to be almost totally ridiculous. You can look
at the website to see for yourself what the conditions are. It is a
nonstop run of 898km over the steep Pyrenees, in which the runners must
climb a total of 55km in vertical ascent. The time limit is 400 hours, or
about 16 days. Thus one must climb on average
about 3500 meters
each day. When we have been on holiday excursions in the Alps, I can say
that climbing just 1000 meters is enough for me. Then I have to go back to
the hotel and have a good sleep in order to recover for the next day's
Mrs. Wefelnberg tells us
that she sensibly got sick and gave up on that one. The main part of the
book is telling us about The
, a run from Alice Springs in Australia to Ayers Rock. That is
slightly more civilized. 520km in nine stages. So it is not nonstop. The
competitors sleep in tents; they start together in the mornings and try to
reach intermediate camps as quickly as possible. Most of the stages are
not more than a normal marathon, and the center of Australia is much, much
flatter than the Pyrenees. But then to make things interesting, the last
stage is 137km, nonstop.
So the book goes on,
particularly about this. In the meantime, Brigid Wefelnberg tells us about
her life. She is a naturalized German citizen, having been born and grown
up in the United States. She loves running about in the Black Forrest
behind Freiburg. There is much more that she tells us about herself. Too
much for this brief review.
Despite the fact that
hundreds of people take part in these runs, which are highly organized,
the fantasy is that the participants are running on their own, with no
outside help. Thus they carry everything necessary in a backpack for the
whole distance. Of course we normal people must consume quite a few
kilograms of food in the course of nine days. But these extreme people
take dried food, thus rendering the fantasy possible, if hardly
appetizing. Unfortunately the illusion is broken in the case of the The
Track, or the similar Marathon
in North Africa, since there is no water to add to your
dried food, and thus all the participants would quickly die of
dehydration. So they are provided with regular water stations along the
way in order to continuously fill up their reserves. The participants run
for days with no change of underwear or anything else, carrying perhaps 10
or 15kg on their backs. Yuck! (I did a walk over the Alps from Germany to
Italy years ago. We were certainly not carrying everything we needed -
just lots of changes of clothes - and we were not allowed to carry more
than 10kg in our backpacks. I found that to be rather heavy, when walking
and I imagine that it would have been very awkward to try to run with such
a weight on my back!)
Anyway, the author found
the final day of The Track to be a challenge - hallucinating - her body
falling apart. She tells us that she just keeps on running, refusing to be
reduced to a mere walk. It takes her something like 30 hours to complete
the 137km. An average of just over 4 1/2 km per hour. But even for an old
person like me, that is an easy walking pace. Of course I could never walk
continuously for 30 hours, but still, the author must have been stumbling
along in a half conscious haze of total exhaustion. With my 72 years, I
stumble along for perhaps three quarters of an hour a couple of times a
week, but certainly covering quite a bit more than 4 1/2 km. That is
sufficiently exhausting for me.
This is a story of late Victorian London, 1893. The
heroine, or at least the protagonist, is the elegant Octavia Hillingdon.
She dabbles on the edges of High Society and writes a gossip column for a
newspaper. Strange things are happening in London. Young women are
disappearing. Some people, called the "Spiritualists", are doing secret
things. Lords in high places seem to be involved. The story develops. We
read on, imagining what might have become of these poor women. What
scandal is about to be revealed?
The mystery increases when
we encounter a seance with figures suddenly appearing in a halo of light,
uttering strange things. Characters in the story tell Octavia, and us,
that there are people in the world who have a glowing quality. Only a few
special people have the ability to see the glowing radiance of these few
people. We are told that Octavia herself glows.
What does this have to do
with the seemingly evil Lord Strythe, in whose London mansion a woman has
committed suicide? We read on to see what this is supposed to be all
Well, the story turns out
to be nothing but nonsense. Lord Strythe and his people have found a way
to extract the glowing radiance from these special women. They then seal
the radiance in special crystal flasks made in a particular, magical
workshop in Belgium. On special occasions, they open a flask and inhale
the radiance, experiencing a high like a shot of cocaine or heroin.
Reaching the end of the
book, realizing that the author was not going to provide us with any sort
of logical explanation, I was disappointed.
Well, OK. I have often
enjoyed stories which depend upon some element of fantasy. But to make
that work, a story should transport us with some humor into a fantasy
world where we are prepared to play about with such ideas.
The story has to do with Tony, a photographer in London
in the 1950s through to the 80s, his wife Barbara, his (presumed) daughter
Sophie, and his girlfriend Diana. But time has passed and it is now 2013.
Sophie has become a photographer, and she measures herself on the success
of her famous father who died 30 years ago. Barbara lives on in her old
age, afraid of all the secrets in her life.
We find that Tony was an
unpleasant character, aggressively dominating his wife, particularly when
he gets drunk, and he was not such a wonderful photographer after all.
Some of his best-known pictures were taken by other people, including
Barbara. And the Great Secret which Barbara wanted at all cost to hide
from Sophie was that she was really the child of Diana.
All of this took place in
the "swinging" London of 40 years ago where, apparently, such
relationships were not uncommon. These days many people are happy to be
part of a "patchwork" family, so we question Barbara's feelings of
inferiority and guilt. Still, I enjoyed the book.
I very seldom reread a book once it is finished. Much
of the enjoyment of a story comes from discovering how things turn out.
Once you know this, then I suppose reasons for reading it again would be
to enjoy the language, the images, the ideas, going beyond the mere story.
Perhaps this is similar to
our experience of life. When progressing into the future we have the
feeling that we have a free will, allowing us to choose one path or
another as we develop the story of our lives. But then, at the end, it is
clear that just one path as been chosen. Free will was simply an illusion.
Yet we can look back on the path which was taken and review what was good
or bad. One theory of cognition holds that the only reason we have
developed a system of consciousness is to create this illusion of free
In the present case, I
first read "Women of the Dunes" and enjoyed it very much. And so,
avoiding the tedium of rereading the book, I thought to download another
book by Sarah Maine, hoping that it would be similarly enjoyable. I chose
"The House Between the Tides". And happily, it turned out to be
almost the identical story, even better told than in the first book.
Both books are concerned
with women whose families were in Canada, with obscure, questionable
relationships to the old country of Scotland back in the old days, around
1900. It is now 2010 or something, today, and they visit Scotland, seeking
answers to the questions. They each find a skeleton buried in the ground.
In both cases it was murder. Who were the victims? What was the drama of
love, jealousy, intrigue which led to the murder? In the quest to find the
answers, they each meet wonderful, earthy men with whom they fall in love.
And The House Between the Tides had the additional advantage that
the story of the doings back then in 1910 also involved a beautiful woman
coming to the wilds of outer Scotland, married to a troubled man, but
falling in love with a wonderful, earthy man of Scotland - not her husband
- living on the property. So we have a doubling of the story here.
The reader may gain the
impression that I am making fun of these books, but no. I enjoyed them. I
did see that Sarah Maine has written a third book about somebody leaving
the wilds of Scotland in 1900 to settle on some sort of wild river in
Canada. Maybe I'll read it some time in the future (imagining that I have
the free will to do that). For now it's enough of these Scotland - Canada
The story seemed familiar. I must have read the book
sometime, years ago, but I'd forgotten the details. It is a kind of Gothic
horror tale about two brothers. Scotland in the year 1745, the Jacobite
Rising, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and all that. The brothers are heirs to an
estate in Scotland. It is decided that one will join the rebellion with
Charlie while the other will stay at home and be loyal to the Crown of
England. Thus both possible outcomes of the rebellion will be covered and
the family will continue into the future. Which of the brothers will go
and which will stay? Both seek adventure, but the choice is decided by the
flip of a coin.
The brothers are of
different temperaments. The one who stays at home is sober, responsible.
The one who goes is irresponsible. He throws money away on gambling,
drink. He gets the daughters of the local peasantry pregnant.
The rebellion fails. The
prodigal son has apparently died gloriously in battle. He becomes a tragic
hero in the eyes of the tenants. And in contrast, the son who has stayed
on, managing the difficult finances of the estate, is considered an
ungenerous miser, a coward who has shirked his duty. To make matters
worse, the young woman who lives in the estate has been pledged to the
departed hero. But as he is presumed dead, and as her inheritance is
essential to the family, she reluctantly marries the stay-at-home son.
But then the prodigal
returns, filled with hatred and expectations so great as to ruin the
family. A dreadful mess. I found the narration at times tedious and
depressing. Eventually we are led to a ridiculous drama in the backwoods
of upstate New York (in the colonial 1760s), resulting in an
unsatisfactory ending. The book cannot be compared with Robert Louis
Stevenson's more famous works.
This is not a novel. Instead it is a narration of what
the American author has experienced while living most of his life in
Japan. In fact he wrote the book in Japanese, and apparently it became a
best-seller in Japan. Although Alex Kerr translates many texts between
English and Japanese, he tells us that he was faced with formidable
problems when contemplating the translation of this book into English, and
therefore he left the task to someone else.
I read the first few
chapters with enthusiasm. We are told that when he was a child, his father
was a member of the U.S. Navy, and thus he was stationed in various
places, resulting in Alex moving from one continent to the next. Back in
those days, the 1950s and 60s, the American military officers must have
played a similar role in the conquered Japan to the British Raj in
subjugated India. They looked upon the highest levels of Japanese society
and culture with the snobbery of the victors. Kerr tells us about family
visits as guests at various mansions and palaces during his childhood.
These experiences led to his to desire to live permanently in the country.
In the 1970s, as a student
with little financial means, he spends as much time in Japan as possible.
He sees that people are leaving the land to move to the cities. They leave
their old, traditional houses behind. And so he buys a house in the
obscure hills of an island for almost nothing and sets about bringing it
back in shape.
We are told about the
beauty of the traditional way of life and of how modern Japanese seem to
embrace only ugliness. Indeed, here is a
to the website of Alex Kerr's house, where you can book a few
days, enjoying the transcendental beauty of traditional Japan, at least as
it conceived of by the author. By contrast, Kerr describes the
fantastically ugly Tower
of the Sun
, which he tells us is typical of all things modern in
Reading on, we find that
he has become a collector and dealer in traditional Japanese art. He is
also a member of a school which offers courses in Japanese art, running
for a few days, apparently mainly for American tourists. Much of the
narration is critical of all sorts of things. I began to find this a bit
tedious. For a simple-minded person like me, art, or music, is good if I
like it, whether or not it satisfies the tastes of the refined critic. And
we learn that, apart from writing books, the preferred art form which Alex
Kerr dabbles in is calligraphy. I waded through his chapters on
calligraphy, noting that it has a very different meaning in ancient Japan
to that which we in Europe experience. We are told that various famous and
ancient calligraphers, as well as the author himself, produced their best
works in a state of late night drunkenness.
The author has written a series of detective stories
involving a character named Jackson Brodie. In fact, the BBC has produced
a series of television dramas based on the first four novels in the series
with the title "Case Histories". This book is the first in the series and
it is the only one I have read.
Everything takes place
near Cambridge, the university town with its magnificent ancient
architecture. We can hardly imagine commonplace murders happening in
Cambridge. Yet the book begins with three unrelated, horrible murders
around about the university, each of which is being investigated by Brodie
some 10 years later.
The main murder which we
first learn about has to do with the family of a mathematician. He is
described as being ugly, overweight, opinionated, arrogant, and filled
with just about every other bad characteristic Kate Atkinson can imagine.
He is also a pedophile who incestuously rapes at least one of his
daughters. Why does the author attribute such character traits to a
mathematician? Has she had some relationship with a mathematician which
went sour, thus finding satisfaction in inventing such a character? Or
perhaps she had a bad teacher at school, putting her off the idea of
mathematics. My observation is that successful mathematicians tend to be
obsessed with their work and so, for outsiders, rather boring. In any
case, the youngest daughter of this character disappears, leaving us to
wonder if she has been murdered or else kidnapped.
The other crimes, which
are definitely murders, are the lovely young daughter of a flabby,
overweight lawyer, having her throat slashed by some seemingly unknown
man, and a frustrated young wife taking an axe and smashing in the skull
of her husband.
The narration was very
disjointed, skipping from one thing to the next. Sometimes a chapter would
end with some character or another just about to reveal an important bit
of information, but then the next chapter lurched into a completely
unrelated episode, involving unfamiliar, obscure characters such that we
must try and remember what they had to do with anything, and thus the
question we wanted to resolve at the end of the last chapter falls by the
wayside. I see no reason to applaud this style of lurching about from one
thing to another. In fact for me it became so disjointed that now, when I
am writing this a week or two after finishing the book, I can hardly
remember what happened in the end.