This year (2023)

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

David Mitchell:
    The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet
Abir Mukherjee:
    A Rising Man
    A Necessary Evil
Ovidia Yu:
    The Mimosa Tree Mystery
    The Frangipani Tree Mystery
    The Betel Nut Tree Mystery
    The Paper Bark Tree Mystery
James Nestor:
J.L. Heilbron:
David Grann:
    The Lost City of Z
Diana Setterfield:
    The Thirteenth Tale
Shion Miura:
    The Easy Life in Kamusari
Stacy Schiff:
    Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov): Portrait of a Marriage
Vladimir Nabokov:
    Pale Fire
Mikhail Lermontov:
    A Hero of our Time
Vladimir Nabokov:
    The Real Life of Sebastian Knight
Namrata Patel:
    The Candid Life of Meena Dave
Alba de Céspedes:
    Forbidden Notebook
    Parisian Days
Edward Chisholm:
    A Waiter in Paris

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, by David Mitchell

     When the Portuguese arrived in Japan at the end of the 16th century, besides commerce, they brought numbers of Catholic priests whose mission it was to convert the natives to Christianity and so to "save" them.
    Soon the Japanese became aware of these subversive intentions, got rid of those who had become "saved", and eventually cut off all contact with the Portuguese. A canal was dug across a small peninsula in Nagasaki Harbor, creating a small island which was named Dejima. It measured only 120 by 75 meters and it was connected to the mainland by a bridge. After 1641 only Dutch traders were allowed to use Dejima, and except for special purposes - paying yearly homage to the Shogun in Edo - they were not allowed to set foot on Japanese soil. The bridge was guarded night and day. The Dutch traders were not allowed to learn the Japanese language. Instead there were official Japanese translators. Everything on the island was under strict Japanese control. Dutch ships came perhaps once each year, sailing up from Batavia, hopefully not to be lost in a Typhoon or taken by pirates or enemy ships. Before setting foot on Dejima the Dutch traders or officials were required to surrender all books or objects having anything to do with Christianity, to be stored away by Japanese officials until the time they left. All Christian ceremony was strictly banned on the island.
    The book is a novel set against this background. The author also wrote Cloud Atlas, a book I read a few years ago and which was made into a movie staring Tom Hanks. As we could thus expect, the story involves unpleasant characters doing unpleasant things. I suppose David Mitchell has studied the history of Dejima to such an extent that much of the detail must be true to life. After all, imagine what it must have been like confined in such a small space for years at a time, uncertain about the fate of the next possible Dutch ship that might arrive in a year or two.
    The protagonist is Jacob De Zoet, a book keeper who has been sent by the Dutch East India Company to investigate possible corruption on the island. It turns out that the most corrupt person is his own supervisor. And then we have a story about the abbot of a monastery up on a mountain near Nagasaki containing monks and "sisters" who have been saved from prostitution, or something. They are impregnated by the monks, and the resulting babies are sacrificed in some sort of ritual aimed at prolonging the life of the abbot, or perhaps also some of the chosen monks. We are not told whether the monastery was devoted to Buddhism, Shintoism, or some other religion. Surely all of this is rather far-fetched. Could the author be telling us about some strange aspects of ancient Japanese culture? In the midst of all of this an English frigate cruises into Nagasaki Harbor and takes a few pot shots at Dejima, blowing up the buildings before sailing away. Judging from the Cloud Atlas, such stories must be a typical device of the author. In the end we have an unfulfilled, distant love story of De Zoet and Ogawa Uzaemon, an angelic Japanese woman.

A Rising Man, by Abir Mukherjee

     This is a murder mystery taking place in India in the early 1920s. But who could write such a book? An English person would be accused of romanticizing English colonialism, the "Raj", and an Indian person would become lost in transcendental philosophical thoughts on the mysteries of India.
    As his name implies, the author is of Indian descent, yet he grew up in Scotland and lives in England. And so he can write stories about the India of those days as he sees it, unburdened by all of this politically correct baggage. The protagonist is Captain Sam Wyndham, an Englishman who has spent four years in France in the Great War, in the trenches, but also in military intelligence under Lord Taggert who is now Commissioner of Police in Calcutta. Wyndham was a policeman before and after the war with Scotland Yard, and so Taggert has asked him to come to India to take up a position with the Indian Imperial Police. Wyndham's sidekick is Sargent Banerjee, whose forename is Surendranath, something which the British find to be unpronounceable, and so he has been called "Surrender-not" ever since he joined the imperial police. Surrender-not is of the Brahman caste and his family lives in a huge palace-like mansion somewhere in Calcutta. But they have disowned him, owing to his connections with the British. The author has written a whole series of novels based on these characters, and this is the first in the series.
    A highly placed British civil servant is found stabbed to death outside a brothel in Black Town, the slum to the north of Calcutta, separated from White Town where the mansions and palaces of the British and the wealthy Indian population live. Was it a gang of terrorists whose aim was to achieve independence for India? Wyndham's assistant, Digby, has an informer who leads him to Sen, a terrorist who has been on the run for years. But Sen tells Wyndham that he has become a disciple of Gandhi. He now rejects violence and seeks independence through peaceful means. He is quickly whisked away by Military Intelligence to be hanged a day or two later, satisfying the general opinion of White Town. Nevertheless Wyndham and Banerjee investigate further, eventually coming to the truth of the matter in the highest places.

A Necessary Evil , by Abir Mukherjee

     Taking a look at the map of India as it was in 1920, we see that at least a third of it was made up of princely states, or kingdoms, some of which were larger than England itself. We are told that at the time of Independence in 1947, there were 565 of them. The story in this book concerns Sambalpore, an imaginary and extremely rich princely state with extensive diamond mines. Our intrepid pair, Captain Sam Wyndham and Sargent Banerjee, are riding in a Rolls Royce with the Crown Prince of Sambalpore in Calcutta. Suddenly a man in traditional Indian clothing with his face covered with ash and whatever else it is jumps in front of the car and shoots the Crown Prince with a revolver. Wyndham is able to follow him and the assassin points the gun at his own head, pulls the trigger and commits suicide.
    And so Wyndham and Banerjee travel to Sambalpore to find out who was responsible. As a friend of the Crown Prince in his days as a schoolboy in England, Banerjee is invited to attend the funeral. And Wyndham takes a holiday to accompany him. After all, they cannot violate the sovereignty of Sambalpore by conducting their own investigation. Nevertheless, the Maharaja does ask them to do all they can to find the murderers. The British Ambassador has cabled the Viceroy, and has been instructed to tell Wyndham and Banerjee to leave Sambalpore immediately and report back to Calcutta. They ignore this and so we have a story of palace intrigues, a harem 120 strong producing well over two hundred progeny of the Maharaja, besides his three official Maharanis and only two official sons. Was it that other prince who was behind the murder? What of the young English woman who was scandalously in love with the Crown Prince? Was it the head eunuch? Was it the Prime Minister cooking the books on diamond sales? We ride about the place in all those Rolls Royces, and especially in a Mercedes Simplex, following the investigation.

The Mimosa Tree Mystery, by Ovidia Yu

     The author is a native of Singapore and is writing about Singapore. The story begins with the narrator, Su Lin, together with everybody else in her house and also all the neighbors being forced at gunpoint out into a field to stand for hours, waiting for something horrible to happen. It is 1943 or so and the Japanese Gestapo, or kenpeitai, are rounding people up to transport them to their torture chambers. Su Lin's uncle is taken away. A hooded informer with loose clothes and a small slit for the eyes to remain anonymous, points at random people. Suddenly Su Lin recognizes the way the figure is walking and calls out who it is, saying that the woman informer is only pointing at people for personal reasons of revenge. Rather than being shot or slammed in the face with a rifle butt, the commanding officer of the kenpeitai, Hideki Tagawa, steps out from behind a truck and takes Su Lin aside, speaking to her. It seems he knows her, and he takes her to the main headquarters of the Japanese Occupation of Singapore where she agrees to work for them as a translator. One of the neighbors, a man of Arab descent living in an expansive mansion, has been murdered. Su Lin comes from the neighborhood. Her family is an important and powerful Chinese clan, the Chens, controlling much of the business of the island, and she speaks Japanese, English, Malay, and some sort of Chinese dialect as well, fluently. It is agreed that Su Lin's uncle will be freed if she is able to find out who the murderer was.
    As we get into the story it seems that the Japanese would like to take on the role of the English who had been driven from Sngapore. The Japanese are no longer mindlessly killing people, throwing them into concentration camps. Now they would like to pacify the population, establish reliable systems of government.
    The plot of the story is derived from the real-life Operation Jaywick. A group of 14 commandos took a small Japanese fishing boat and sailed from Western Australia to Singapore, disguised as Japanese fishermen. In the night they attached magnetic explosive mines to the hulls of seven small ships. They were cargo and tanker ships. No warships. Three were sunk, but one of those was salvaged; the other four ships only had relatively minor damage. The commandos then sailed back to Australia to be greeted as heroes. Things were not so happy in Singapore. The Japanese could not believe that such an attack could be mounted from so far away. It must have been "terrorists" in the local population. Hundreds of people were rounded up and horribly tortured and killed. Extremes of suffering for such minor, even meaningless results.
    The story of the book changes these details. Most of the ships have become warships. The one exception is a cargo ship containing some sort of treasure being transported to the Japanese motherland, and the murdered Arabian had something to do with stealing it. In the end it turns out that the supreme Japanese commander on the island was behind everything.
    But more than this, Hideki Tagawa asserts that Su Lin is his cousin. Her mother (both her parents are long since dead) was Tagawa's long lost sister. Su Lin hates him and she hates the Japanese. Surely this is just an absurd story he has made up to manipulate her. But he shows her a photo taken when he was a child and his sister was a young woman. She recognizes him in the photo and sees herself in the image of the sister.
    Was the picture "photo-shopped" using whatever means they had in those days for cutting and pasting photographic film? If so, who was the model in the photo looking so like Su Lin? On the other hand, although this book was advertised in amazon as the "Su Lin Series Book 1", it seems that it is not really the first book of the series. In fact the first book is "The Frangipani Tree Mystery" which is supposed to be the "Crown Colony Book 1" of the author. I have now read that book and it is clear that it gives much of the background to the present story. But one thing does remain a mystery. In the Crown Colony Book 1 it is mentioned in passing something about Su Lin's various aunts on her mother's side. It is certainly not said that they are all Japanese women. Also it is not implied that they are the Japanese prostitutes which are mentioned in the Betel Nut Tree Mystery (Crown Colony Book 2). No. It is implied that they are part of the Chinese community. I suspect that this is an unintended mystery, and if it were to be pointed out to the author she would tell us that it of no importance.

The Frangipani Tree Mystery
     This is the first book in the series. It is 1936 and Su Lin has finished school, having passed an exam to obtain the General Cambridge Certificate. Su Lin's family expect her to marry and become a part of the Chen clan, having children, cooking, cleaning. But she wants other things. Perhaps to become a reporter or at least a secretary. The sister of the Governor, Miss Vanessa Palin, is more or less in charge of the school. She also believes that women can do more than simply sit at home and so she arranges a possible job for Su Lin as a housekeeper for Chief Inspector Le Froy, the head of the police in Singapore, possibly leading to further opportunities. But suddenly the interview with Le Froy is interrupted with the news that Charity Byrne, a young woman who had been brought over from Ireland to look after the mentally retarded daughter of the Governor, has fallen from a balcony of the Governor's mansion, killing herself. Le Froy drives quickly to the scene together with Su Lin. It is soon established that the body of Charity has a knife wound in its side.
    Unusually for a "native", Su Lin is allowed to enter the inner rooms of the mansion along with Le Froy. She wanders out and finds the daughter who has retreated somewhere into the forest, establishes a rapport with the retarded young woman and ends up living in the house for weeks, looking after her. And so she is able to observe things from the inside. The seemingly idle, useless Governor's son. The always correct Miss Vanessa. The Governor's wife who has grown fat, angry with everything, especially the "black" natives and the tropics in general, and the Governor himself who does more than simply admire attractive young women.
    All of this leads to an explosive end which Su Lin survives to become the valued assistant of Chief Inspector Le Froy.

The Betel Nut Tree Mystery
    King Edward VIII abdicated from the throne of England at the end of 1936 in order to marry the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. Something which was considered a scandal. The story of this book imagines a more or less analogous business taking place in Singapore. We have the son of an aristocratic English family arriving with his American divorcee fiancee, together with her small son and a further retinue of various characters. The prospective groom laughs and plays practical jokes, inconveniencing other people. Suddenly he is found dead in the hotel. And so we are introduced to a strange collection of unpleasant people. The fiancee is extremely, offensively egocentric. There is the best friend of the murdered man who is perhaps in love with the fiancee. And then the best friend of Su Lin falls in love with that best friend. Eventually he also dies. The father-in-law of the prospective bride seems to be only concerned with his grandson. But is it really his grandson? Some of the scenes in the hotel resemble a slap-stick comedy. I began to wonder why I am reading this, but I did read through to the end. It was a diversion.

The Paper Bark Tree Mystery
     It is now one or two years later. The Japanese have invaded China and are reported to be committing atrocities. Yet the English administration of Singapore forbids any criticism of Japan for fear of offending the Japanese. Le Froy has been trying to keep track of suspicious Japanese activities in Malaya, but he has been disciplined for doing this. He has lost his position. Various administrators have been brought in from India. They are only concerned with putting down the Indian "terrorists" who are seeking Indian independence. All Indians in Singapore are considered potential terrorists and are arrested, or at least brought in for questioning. The person who has replaced Le Froy has fired Su Lin, saying that no natives are to be trusted. But then he is found one morning murdered in the "shack" where the police records are kept...
    Why am I reading this stuff?

    Reading a novel transports us out of ourselves into an imaginary story, a dream, showing us what life might be like in a different world. This might be pure diversion, especially if it's a nice story. Or we might think of problems with life which we hadn't thought about before. And then we might find real life to be not so pleasant and hope for a story which brings us out of this real world.
    And so I'm not really in the mood for a story which is depressing or just plain frivolous and silly.
    The German Foreign Minister - that seemingly immature, thoughtless woman, Annalena Baerbock - has announced to the world in the forum of the European Parliament that Germany is at war with Russia. German battle tanks are to be rolling through Ukraine again in the direction of Stalingrad (or Volgograd) as if we are in a time-warp of 80 years; it is January 1943 and the Wehrmacht is on the move, led on by a modern-day goddess of victory, Germania, saving the Earth, if not from carbon dioxide, at least from the scourge of Slavic hoards. No thought is given to how this war has been provoked over the last 15 or 20 years; about the deceptions of that woman before her, Mrs. Merkel, pretending to guarantee the Minsk agreements. And so hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are being sacrificed for nothing. The newspapers, television, radio in Germany are saturated with a single, unified clamor for more war, more weapons, aircraft, rockets, longer range. Blow those Russians to smithereens!
    As more and more longer range rockets are thrown into the fight we can imagine what will happen as the salvos increase. How are the Russians to distinguish a salvo of "conventional" rockets from a salvo of atomic bombs in a massive "first strike"? After all, various elements in Washington have been openly fantasizing about how wonderful such a thing would be. There are hundreds of American atomic bombs stationed in Germany. Heaven knows how many are in Poland and the Baltic countries. The Russians would only have 2 or 3 minutes to decide whether or not to quickly launch their counter-strike before it would be hit by the incoming atomic bombs. There is no time. The launch decision will be decided automatically by computer remote control. Life has become an absurd theater of horror. Will we survive this madness?

Breath, by James Nestor

     After all those thoughts this book is a breath of fresh air. What can we say about breathing? We all do it. Otherwise we wouldn't be alive. It's trivial. As far as medicine is concerned (according to the book, and I can well believe it is true) it doesn't matter how you breathe: through the nose, the mouth, through a tube, it's all the same. Just draw air into the lungs and blow it out. Nothing could be simpler.
    But how can some people hold their breath for 10 minutes, or free dive in the ocean for minutes at a time? The book doesn't tell us how they do this. But it does tell us about the one very basic thing which many people no longer do. Namely:
Beginning in 1830, the painter George Catlin traveled among the Indians - or Native Americans - living with different tribes throughout the Americas. He admired their perfect physiques, the symmetry of their faces and their general physical health. And everywhere he was told that this was due to breathing through the nose, not the mouth. Breathing through the mouth leads to congestion throughout the head and all sorts of different consequences which are explained in the book.
    Some time ago I did look at a video of someone giving a talk about the Buteyko method which also emphasized the importance of breathing through the nose. But it also involved stopping breathing for as many seconds as possible, holding the breath until it became uncomfortable. Something about carbon dioxide. The instructor said that mouth breathing causes crooked teeth, asthma, colds, and all sorts of other things. But the remedy with all that breath holding seemed so unpleasant. I've now made it to 75 years old and I'm still Ok with breathing the way I always have, so why bother?
    James Nestor gives a much broader view of all of this. Not breathing properly through the nose might have much to do with it, but crooked teeth also result from soft, mushy, overly processed food and no chewing. Perhaps processed sugar not only ruins the teeth but distorts much else of the body's metabolism. As the facial bones degenerate, becoming smaller and thinner, the eyes sag, become baggy. The jaw recedes.
    We are then told of the mechanism the body has for distributing oxygen throughout the system. It is regulated by carbon dioxide. This is the Bohr effect. If there is not enough carbon dioxide in the blood then the amount of oxygen being transported to the cells of the body decreases. Therefore we should breath slowly through the nose allowing the carbon dioxide in the blood to reach a healthy level. The example of athletes being tested on an ergometer - an exercise machine - is described. In the first test they breathed "normally", gasping for breath through the mouth as well as the nose. Then the test was repeated with only nose breathing and they were astonished to find that they then performed better.
    I found this difficult to believe. I usually jog about 5 or 6 kilometers, which I run a couple of times each week. In the middle is a little hill and I'm always totally out of breath after climbing it. I have to walk for a few minutes to get my breath back, breathing heavily, before continuing to run. And so, inspired by the book, I decided to see how far I could get by only breathing through the nose. It is winter here, cold, wet, so the eyes water, going through the nasolacrimal duct to the nose, restricting nose breathing even more than is otherwise the case. I had expected to have to gasp for breath after only a hundred meters or so, like trying to hold my breath for a minute or more. But no! I was probably jogging a little slower than usual, and my lungs were missing that cold hit which the air when quickly inhaled through the mouth provides. There was even a minor feeling of suffocation from the increased carbon dioxide and the effort of inhaling through the nose. Yet I could keep on going without stopping, and I even jogged up the hill more easily that usual. I was able to complete the whole workout without once opening my mouth. Afterwards the muscles felt less tired than usual. So there you are! I have decided to become like an American Indian and keep my mouth closed.
    The book also tells us to often breath deeply. It has been found that the size of the lungs is decisive for health. The larger the lungs, the more healthy you are and the longer you live. And so I thought to bring out my favorite flute and just enjoy breathing into it, playing through a few of the pieces I used to play before taking up the viol in retirement. But in order not to interrupt the flow of the music it seems impossible to avoid quickly inhaling through the mouth as well as the nose. Oh well... Nothing is perfect. People say that there is an analogy between the flute and bowed stringed instruments. The breath flowing over the far edge of the embouchure hole is like the bow being drawn across the string, and then the lungs and the spaces in the nose and the sinuses are like the resonant body of the viol.
    The second half of the book is titled "Breathing+". All those things about Buddhist monks and their extreme endurance. The techniques of Wim Hof. This involves the opposite of the breathing technique which was described in the first part of the book. Hyperventilating. Subjecting the body into a directed stress. The traditional technique of the peoples of the Himalayas is known as Tummo. There is a YouTube video of a young man who is a teacher of Tummo. I can imagine that he might be an American Indian. An ideal young man. A wonderfully proportioned face and body, in harmony with himself and the world. A model of good breathing.

Galileo, by J.L. Heilbon

     Galileo's father was Vincenzo Galilei, a lute virtuoso and philosopher of music of the renaissance. Of course the lute was the most important instrument in the music of those days. Galileo, the son, often accompanied his father on the lute, and so he became himself a well-known virtuoso. In those days musicians were subjected to the whims of the local prince or duke, or catholic bishop. Money was withheld and only obtained after a certain amount of begging, leaving the musician and his family half destitute. And thus Vincenzo decided that Galileo should become a medical doctor. After all, doctors can always be expected to become rich. But Galileo didn't like medicine. As a way out he slid into mathematics. This is also often a formula for poverty, but Galileo combined this with literature, theology, astrology, of course music and so forth, becoming a renaissance man and a professor of all those things, but especially mathematics, at the University of Pisa at the age of 25.
    Galileo wrote numbers of books on various subjects, and lots of letters to various people, expounding on all his ideas. And then there are the archives of the Vatican which in those days was concerning itself with the Counter-Reformation and the Inquisition, producing further reams of paper in the style of the East German STASI on everybody in Italy, including Galileo. As a result the biographer has much to draw from in his description of the hero. One possibility would be to ignore all of that boring detail and instead tell a good story, bringing in the juicy details which the life of Galileo certainly could provide, given a sufficient amount of literary fantasy. Our author, J.L. Heilbon, decided instead to fill his biography with long verbatim quotes (in translation) from all of those sources, providing us with a book containing much tedious detail and little fantasy. There are pages and pages of schoolbook geometry, giving us diagrams of the circles, lines, triangles and squares which Galileo published, together with lots of sentences in the style of: let ABC be a triangle and CF be a line bisecting AB, etc., etc... I don't know how to reproduce such texts in the HTML language. Perhaps it would be possible to integrate a TeX file into these writings here, but I don't know how to do that. When reading the book I skipped over much of the text, feeling sorry for the students of those days at the University of Pisa who had to master such things. But while skipping through these things I did stop at a certain point and tried to verify what was being quoted.
    Apparently, if I understood what was being said, it seems that Galileo asserted that a pendulum of fixed length always swings with a given fixed period, regardless of the amplitude of the swing. But as everybody knows, that is false! Therefore I wondered where Galileo's mistake lay. Again there were pages of text filled with elementary geometric assertions. And I was struck by the Figure 4.6, reproduced in the book. Now it is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. But in mathematics, one can also say that a picture is a thousand times more likely to produce a mistake. Despite this I would have liked to include the Figure here. However, after spending 4 or 5 minutes looking at the LibreOffice Draw software on my computer, and thus realizing that I would have to spend 4 or 5 hours in order to work out how to make such a drawing, I have instead decided to describe the drawing with words.
    Let ACF be a right angled triangle. Let AC and AF be the sides adjacent to the right angle so that the remaining side, AF is the hypotenuse. Let us assume that the length of AC is some number r, and it is less than the length of CF. Let K be a circle with radius r and center-point C. The hypotenuse AF intersects the circle K in some point D between A and F. Then the text preceding this Figure asserts that "if you remember your Euclid, you know that AD·AF=2AC²". I assume this must be a direct quotation from something of Galileo. At first it almost seems plausible. After all, AD<r and AF>r, so perhaps it is some kind of obscure generalization of the Pythagorean Theorem. Remembering that in this kind of geometry, products are represented by geometrical areas, I started drawing quadrangles, triangles, looking for similar triangles and all that. Did Euclid really prove such a theorem? After wasting a half hour and three or four pieces of paper on this fruitless exercise I decided to do the thing properly and think of simple trigonometry, immediately seeing that the assertion is false.
    But there were some interesting things in the book. For example we have Archimedes and his "eureka" moment. I had always wondered how Archimedes could so precisely measure the volume of water displaced by the crown in the story. As described in the book, and also in a long-winded article of the Wikipedia, Archimedes, and also Galileo, needed only to take a piece of gold of the same weight as the crown as measured on a balance in the laboratory. Then both the crown and the gold piece are submerged in water. If the crown contains lots of silver - which has a lower specific weight than gold - then the crown will have more volume than the gold piece. Therefore it will be more buoyant in water and the balance will tilt toward the gold piece, proving that the crown is not made of pure gold.
    And then we have the story that Galileo stood on top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and dropped two objects of different weights, showing that they descended at the same speed and thus showing that Aristotle was wrong. But this is not at all what the true story was. Aristotle was the required text to be taught at universities. Yet it was generally recognized to be false, and what was worse, it contradicted much of the teachings of the Bible. Thus Saint Thomas Aquinas, back in the 13th century, provided us with an official interpretation of Aristotle, making it more acceptable for Christianity and - more or less - for physics. At the time of Galileo, lots of people were dropping all sorts of weights from buildings and interpreting the way they were falling in one way or another. This was the Great Problem of Motion. For example it was asserted that if we have a piece of wood and a piece of iron of the same weight, then the wood will fall more quickly than the iron. The experiment is difficult to perform. Perhaps the wood slips out of the hand faster than the iron, or not. The reason given for the assertion that wood falls more quickly is that wood contains more air than iron (remembering that everything is composed of the four elements: air, water, earth and fire). And compressed air in the wood is heavier than normal air, so it falls faster... or something. Maybe it was also thought that iron contains more fire which tends to rise, thus slowing the rate of descent (although that possible argument was not quoted in the text). All of this produced heated arguments and counter arguments. Lots of bad feelings. Galileo was always quick to take offense. And then there were all sorts of similar arguments about other natural phenomena. I began to skip lightly through through the book, gliding over this nonsense. Some things were reasonable, others, such as Galileo's theory of tides, not so.
    Of course Galileo was a big fan of the Copernican world view. Copernicus lived a hundred years before Galileo, so it was not as if this was a startling new idea. In fact the official view of the Roman Catholic Church was that all of these theories about astronomy had nothing really to do with the church. After all, Aristotle had asserted that the heavenly objects are perfect spheres and the fixed stars are fixed on a rigid metal sphere, and all that, which is obviously nonsense. It was all interpreted away by Saint Thomas as being of no significance for theology, and therefore the church had no particular position on the question. Copernicus' book was widely circulated and debated throughout Italy for a century before Galileo came along.
    The problem was that Galileo had become famous by developing the telescope which had been first constructed in Holland, and he looked through it at night. He saw that the moon had mountains; he discovered four small moons of Jupiter; he discovered, or at least described, sunspots. All of these things were considered to be sensational.
    Galileo was a very devoted catholic and he was good friends with the Pope Paul V who, unfortunately, died in 1621. The successor, Gregory XV didn't last long, and then came Urban VIII in 1623. A very touchy person. Quick to anger, as was the now famous Galileo himself. Urban developed a hatred for Galileo for some obscure reason. And unlike these days where those princes of religion with their outlandish costumes and elaborate ceremonies are not taken seriously, back in the days of the Inquisition the popes could have people burned at the stake at the drop of a hat, or an imagined affront. Thus the story that after signing his confession, Galileo was supposed to have murmured "and yet it moves", is certainly not true. Tycho Brahe's model with the Earth at the center of the Universe, the Sun and the Moon orbiting the Earth, and everything else orbiting the Sun, is of course completely equivalent to Copernicus' model through a trivial change of frame of reference. And Urban VIII declared Brahe's model to be acceptable, so the controversy was about nothing. The whole business resulted in a retreat from science in Italy for at least a hundred years, during which time progress was made in the northerly lands of Europe which had rejected the Catholic Church and all of its abuses.

The Lost City of Z, by David Grann

     This book caught my eye owing to its title. "Z" is the symbol of the Russian war in Ukraine. But it has nothing at all to do with that mess. Instead it is concerned with Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, the British explorer, and his quest for the lost land of El Dorado which he decided to think about as the "Lost City of Z" for some reason. In 1925 he disappeared into the Amazon jungle together with his son and his son's friend, never to be seen again.
    Looking at the Wikipedia page of the author, we see a flabby middle-aged man, the antithesis of the intrepid explorer. Yet he traveled to Brazil, to Dead Horse Camp and beyond, the last known position of Fawcett, in order to research this book. For David Grann the excursion was infinitely more comfortable than it had been for Fawcett and his companions. The jungle has been done away with, replaced with vast open fields of soybeans. He tells us that his car and driver had to negotiate the mud and rut holes in the roads leading to Dead Horse Camp. And then there was the problem of getting to the Indian village which was rumored to be the place where Fawcett was killed all those years ago. This was more complicated. It was in a part of the jungle which still existed and was a protected area. The Indian tribes were left alone and outsiders were only allowed in under very special circumstances. David Grann was able to obtain a guide who was familiar with the local people and who acted as translator. They traveled for hours along the Upper Xingu river in a boat with outboard motor, finally stopping to walk a few hundred meters inland to the village of the Kalapalos Indians.
    The local chief told him that Fawcett and his two companions were not killed by their tribe, but rather by the neighbors who were much more brutal. Be that as it may, the author met up with Michael Heckenberger, an anthropologist of the University of Florida who studies the Kalapalos people and has himself become a member of the tribe. He has identified vast structures, mounds in the earth, indicative of large interconnected settlements: the Kuhikugu archeological site. This might have been the civilization glimpsed by early Spanish explorers, the legendary El Dorado. Fawcett's "Z". The inhabitants must have been wiped out by the diseases brought by the Europeans, degenerating into small, brutal tribes, killing all intruders, in particular the Spanish. Since there is a lack of stones in the Amazon, their cities were made of wood and earthworks. The former disappearing into the jungle growth and the later gradually subsiding. All of this is the subject of Heckenberger's research.
    But the main part of the book is a biography of Percy Fawcett and his world of the Amazon in the early 1900s. A man of extreme physical fitness and determination. Unlike today, an expedition was totally on its own. Dark clouds of mosquitoes biting everything; worms which penetrated under the skin, growing there, spreading throughout the body; poisonous snakes; brutal cannibalistic Indians; hunger and thirst. It was a paradox that the jungle was full of dangerous life, but almost none of it was suitable for eating - at least for the explorers who were not familiar with the ways of the Indians. Most of the people who tried to explore the Amazon never returned.
    We are left with the vision of a vast, forgotten civilization. The City of Z.

The Thirteenth Tale, by Diana Setterfield

     This is a retelling, or paraphrasing, of Jane Eyre, that classical 19th century romance for lonely girls, brought into a more or less modern setting. We have the orphaned heroine. The decrepit, ancient English mansion consumed by fire, consuming an insane female. The disfigurement of the beloved. In the original, Mr. Rochester is blinded but also freed of poor old Bertha. (I much preferred Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea, showing how the sensitive Antoinette is converted by the evil Mr. Rochester into the tragic figure of Bertha.) Diana Setterfield's Adeline is evil from birth, leaving her complacent twin sister Emmeline to be disfigured by fire, and to be loved by the destitute half sister, Vida Winter, the version of Jane Eyre for the present story.
    These fires, killings of unwanted rivals, is long in the past. Vida Winter is now an old woman in her 80s, in the process of dying. She is England's greatest living novelist, having written a book a year, each volume selling millions, being translated into countless foreign languages and being sold in their millions as well. She must be as rich as J.K. Rowling, or even very much richer. She lives in a huge house somewhere in the English countryside, surrounded by huge gardens, servants. The not-quite-twin, the disfigured, mentally disturbed Emmeline, lives in a secret wing of the house, lovingly attended to by the housekeeper.
    But all of this is just a framework for telling us the real story which is about the mystical relationship of twins with one another. The book starts off by telling us about Margaret Lea, living in an antiquarian bookshop in Cambridge (if I remember rightly) with her father, reading sought-after and rare editions of Jane Eyre and also some of the novels of Wilkie Collins, and so on. We are told that she was the dominant half of a Siamese twin; at birth the other half was cut away, leaving Margaret alive but with the feeling of guilt, loneliness, longing for her murdered other half. She goes on and on about this. Where is her other half? Is she waiting in the other world, beyond death? How is life possible alone? Everything is depression. Her mother has fallen into a deep, lasting depression, rejecting Margaret, mooning after the lost other half. Only her father tries to be a bit sensible. And then when the story gets going it is also all about the twins Adeline and Emmeline. How they long for each other and how they suffer from separation. I began to wonder what it is that the author has about twins. Does she have a twin obsession? Almost all the rest of us do not have a twin, and even most twins are not identical twins. It is normal not to be a twin.
    Margaret receives a letter from Vida Winter, asking her to write her biography. And so the story begins, immersing us into the world of both Jane Eyre and of twins, further than we had really wanted to go.

The Easy Life in Kamusari, by Shion Miura

     A Japanese novel about forestry. The narrator, Yuki, has just finished school in the big city of Yokohama, not doing well. And so he is suddenly confronted with the fact that his parents and school teachers have gotten him a job working in the mountain forests at an obscure place called Kamusari, without asking him. He goes there, is placed under the tutelage of Yoki, lives in Yoki's house together with his wife Miho, and gets to know all the other people in the village as well. Gradually he learns all about how forestry is done in Japan. He becomes strong and learns to love life in the forest, becoming accepted as a member of the village. He falls in love with the school teacher, Nao, who, unfortunately, at least at first, rejects him. Nao is secretly in love with Seiichi, the owner of all the forestry land, but who also goes out every day to work in the forest along with everybody else. Seiichi is married and is a very honorable person so that Nao's secret love is in vain. Towards the end, Nao does consent to go for the occasional walk with Yuki, so there is hope. The book is written in a simple, almost juvenile style, as if it is a book for children. This may be the style of the translator; perhaps it does not reflect the style of the original.
    We learn lots about how forestry is done in Japan. The workers continually walk around the mountain, cutting down "weeds" with scythes, climbing up the trees with ropes to cut off lower branches in order to have the trees growing straight with few knots in the wood. All of this labor must make the final lumber which is the product of the whole business extremely expensive. We are told that wood which is imported into Japan is much cheaper, but this domestic wood is considered to be of a more pure quality. Of course the whole thing is not a "forest", rather it is a tree plantation, or farm. There is a sacred mountain where nature is left to itself. Yuki is overwhelmed by all the life and growth in this real forest. At the end of the book the men of the village march up to near the top of the sacred mountain to chop down a gigantic, thousand year old tree. Then they climb on top of it and slide down the mountain, risking their lives in a kind of wild toboggan ride. I wonder how the huge log with a diameter of 3 or 4 meters is supposed to be prevented from rolling over, crushing everybody. Such destruction serves to honor the god of the mountain.
    In Australia, south of Eden on Twofold Bay, there is a huge logging operation. There is certainly no "weeding" or any of that. The native bush - it's not called forest - is completely cleared away with bulldozers in some given plot of a few hectares, and the whole thing is shredded into wood chips to be sent to Japan to make paper. Then the land is left to regenerate by itself for a sufficient amount of time, "weeds" and all. Maybe these days the wood chips are just burned. Here in Germany burning wood chips for heating houses is applauded by the voters of the Green Party, despite the fact that it causes increased levels of pollution.
    Germans make much of their forests, or "Wälder". When I first arrived in the Spring of 1975 I was astonished at the intense green of the forests. And yet everywhere it was said that the forests were dying. "Waldsterben". They have been continuously dying between then and now. Fifty years ago they were dying due to acid rain, or smog, global cooling, or something. Now they are dying due to climate change. People are continuously concerned about the death of the forests. And yet for some reason there is now more forest here than there was 50 years ago. Some real forests are left alone and are full of thick vegetation. In fact, as I understand it, in places where people are afraid to go - for example in those countries of the Balkans where they are continuously cutting each others throats, or around Chernobyl - the forests are absolutely thriving. The problem in Germany is that most of the trees are in privately owned tree plantations. And it was thought that planting fir trees would give the most profit. Fir trees are not really suited to this climate. The natural vegetation is oak and beech and lots of other things. Hard wood. But that grows more slowly with lots of curved branches. Not so good for building slanted roofs or wooden partitions. And so the fir trees, planted in rows of mono-culture, are weak, tending to sickness. Given a nice warm summer then the owners of the tree plantations complain. Their trees are attacked by beetles; they fall down together in their rows and columns if a storm wind blows. People panic. They spray the tree plantations with pesticides from helicopters. They vote for the Greens. And they cannot see the healthy natural forests which are thriving next to all those unnatural tree plantations.

Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov): Portrait of a Marriage, by Stacy Schiff

     I found this book in a list of the 20 best biographies. It is as much concerned with the husband, the author, as with Véra. Both were born at the turn of the 19th to the 20th centuries in the old Saint Petersburg into very wealthy families, living just a block or two from one another but first meeting in the 1920s in exile in Berlin. Vladimir's ancient and aristocratic family occupied a huge city mansion, and in fact when an uncle died, Vladimir, at the age of 16, was bequeathed a magnificent country estate. But all of this was lost to communism, leaving the family in exile with practically nothing. As a young man Vladimir was handsome, athletic. A championship tennis player. Even as a teenager he published books of his poetry. The family first went to England where Vladimir entered Cambridge at Trinity College and studied zoology and languages while the others moved to France. Later Vladimir moved to the large emigrant Russian colony in Berlin where he existed writing books of Russian poetry and giving tennis lessons to the other Russians in the city. He fell in love with one beautiful young Russian aristocratic woman after the other, becoming engaged, but ultimately rejected as the penniless poet with no future by those families who had had the foresight to take out enough money in time. He was proud of the fact that although he was fluent in both English and French, he was unable, and refused to learn, German, despite the fact that he lived in Berlin for perhaps 10 years until the Nazis came to power.
    Véra's family was Jewish; also very wealthy. And as with the Nabokovs, almost all was lost in the emigration. Véra was fluent in various languages, including German, and so she was working as a translator in Berlin. When they first met Vladimir was just recovering from the rejection of his latest marriage engagement. In his impulsive, poetic way, he declared himself to be totally in love with Véra. She was in love with him. They were together in tiny, uncomfortable apartments. The other Russian aristocrats thought it a minor scandal that he was together with a Jewish woman, but life had been overturned anyway, and they married with little ceremony.  Véra devoted herself to Vladimir. He was a genius. The greatest Russian writer of the century, and indeed this view was shared by others in the Berlin colony. Véra continued to earn barely enough with translations, but she also became Vladimir's secretary, typing drafts of his manuscripts. And so life went on.
    As it became clear that life in Berlin would be impossible, Vladimir traveled to Paris and London, trying to find publishers for his writings, giving talks. After 10 years of marriage to Véra, separated on one of these trips, he fell completely in love with Irina Guadanini, another young Russian aristocratic woman... Drama. Tragedy. He eventually returned to Véra, rejecting his new love with Irina, and she became an embittered woman, withdrawing into herself, growing old and isolated. We have the feeling that Vladimir simply remained with Véra for the convenience of her devotion, her typing and her dealing with all the practical aspects of life. For the rest of his life Vladimir pretended that he was unable to deal with anything practical. He could not drive a car; he could not use the telephone; he could not write letters. All of these things were for Véra. And she devoted herself to them and to him so that he found that he also loved her devotedly. They became inseparable.
    At the last minute they escaped from Paris to the United States where he was able to obtain a temporary position at Wellesley College, lecturing to the adoring young female students about literature. He also gave occasional talks at Harvard and eventually obtained a permanent position at Cornell University. Much of the book is devoted to this phase of their lives.
    To be quite frank, I often wonder why there are faculties of literature at most universities. I enjoy reading these things for various reasons which I've often mentioned here. It is pleasant to read stories, usually more so than watching a movie or even talking to others, listening to their stories. But when did the idea arise that literature should be more than a pleasant diversion and instead become a serious academic field of study? What is the point of such studies? Certainly before the 19th century, novels were considered to be nothing more than trivial ways to pass the time. Something to chat about in idle moments.
    It seems that the Nabokovs wrote out in detail, perhaps word for word, the lectures he spoke at Cornell. And then Véra came to each of his lectures, often sitting in front of the students, being introduced as his "assistant". She filled in details, erased the blackboard, helped him while he pretended to be helpless. Apparently it was a popular performance and his lectures were very well attended. Students were astonished to learn that Véra was his wife. And I find the whole thing difficult to imagine. Who ever heard of someones wife - or husband as the case may be - intimately taking part in ones lectures like that? The idea seems impossible, bizarre. And then at home Véra spent sleepless days and nights, typing up these lectures and the other writings of Vladimir, as well as cooking for him, looking after their son, Dimitri, keeping the house clean and tidy, driving Vladimir to the faculty and back. Always trying to stay in the background; only Vladimir was important. Gradually some began to suspect that Véra had also taken over some of Vladimir's writing, an idea she always vehemently disputed. During the holidays Véra drove the family out West to the wide expanses of America, and Vladimir pottered about with his hobby: collecting butterflies. Véra was staunchly anti-communist. She applauded Joseph McCarthy and was indignant about the fact that he had fallen from grace. She was proud and vocal about her Jewish ancestry, while Vladimir floated above such things.
    Up to this point Nabokov was just one of the many obscure immigrant intellectuals filling posts at American universities. All of this changed with Lolita, propelling Vladimir into instant celebrity, if not notoriety. He continued to write. His Pnin, which I enjoyed so much, was written after Lolita. The income from Cornell was no longer needed. Gradually they sought a place to settle in Europe, ending up in the Montreux Palace Hotel in 1961 and living there on a permanent basis until his death in 1977. Véra continued typing for him, driving him about as his chauffeur, dealing with all the disputes with publishers, taxation problems (they had taken out American citizenship, thus creating permanent tax difficulties for themselves), all of the details of the translations of Nabokov's various novels into countless other languages, and so on... while Vladimir remained in his role as the helpless genius. After Vladimir's death, Véra stayed in the Palace Hotel another 14 years until she also passed away.
    I must read a few more of Nabokov's books.

Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov

     Clicking in to Amazon to download this book, nothing happened. I wondered what the problem was. But then I noticed a text telling me that I had already "bought" this book from them. Indeed, some years ago, perhaps just after I had read Pnin, I must have started reading this one, but I see that I soon gave up. This time, having read all about the lives of Vladimir and Véra, I was determined to push on to the end.
    It starts off with a 999 line poem. I was going to write that it is a nonsense poem written as a joke, but perhaps the professors of literature in all the universities of the world would admonish us to take it seriously. The story is that the poem was written by John Shade, a professor of literature at an American university. In fact the scene seems to that of Cornell University. This book was written by Nabokov after he had become rich and famous with his Lolita. He was freed of the constraints of academic life and could make fun of his former colleagues.
    After wading through these 999 lines we then have a much longer prose exposition which is that of Charles Kinbote, a neighbor of Shade in this imaginary Cornell and a colleague of his in its Faculty of Literature. Shade has died after completing the poem and Kinbote is editing it for publication, or whatever. He rambles on and on. Obscure nonsense for page after page about an imaginary country named Zembla which has some of the attributes of Russia, but many attributes not of Russia. How he was a close friend of Shade, although Shade despised him. How he is secretly so much more wonderful than the others in the Faculty. And so on. I made it further into the book than was the case at my last attempt, but well before the end I could not avoid the question of why I was wasting so much time on such nonsense. And thus I stopped. But looking at the number of stars people give the book at, I see that I am nearly alone in this. And therefore, once again, I realize that I am living in a completely different world from that which all of you other people seem to occupy.
    In my world I interpret this book as being the product of an excess of egotistical exuberance on the part of the author in that phase of his life. In the previous book we saw that whenever Vladimir or Véra were asked about their favorite authors or books, they could honestly only think of Vladimir. All other authors were dreadful, or at least inferior. Vladimir was everything.
    Well, it is true that he was perhaps the best in his style: the witty satire. But there are many other styles in literature. For example the Nabokovs made fun of Jane Austen as being a dreadful writer of rubbish. But in her style surely any sensible person would say she was wonderful. I enjoyed reading her books. This present book, Pale Fire, in the style of Nabokov, is for me rubbish.
    Pale Fire was mentioned often in the previous biography of the Nabokovs, but also the classic Russian novel A Hero of our Time was often mentioned. The Nabokovs must have had a good opinion of the author, so I'll read that next to see what it's all about.

A Hero of our Time, by Mikhail Lermentov

     This was first published in Russian in 1840. There is a translation by Vladimir, together with his son Dimitri Nabokov; it may well be better than the one I have read, but this one was freely downloadable from We can read about the author here. Lermentov was a member of the Russian aristocracy, as was the Hero of his book, Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin. They both became officers in the Russian army after a difficult childhood. The author, Lermentov, served in the Caucasian mountains, having been exiled there after his taking part in a duel - which was of course illegal. And this book is set in the Caucasus. Lermentov was killed in another duel which he had provoked by insulting a former friend for attiring himself in native costume. Thus the author's life and death follows the plot of his novel, with the twist that in the novel, Pechorin coldly shoots his opponent after complicated disputes on the conduct of the duel, disappearing into the mists of the mountains.
    Beautiful, young, wealthy, aristocratic women throw themselves at Pechorin, princesses, countesses, provoking the envy of the other officers and husbands. He treats them all with cold disdain. And the author was similarly the object of desire of young, wealthy and aristocratic women. The novel was criticized at the time of publication for its senseless lack of morality, but this was part of the Byronic tradition of the romantic age.
    We are among the mountains in the south of Russia with their countless, violent tribal people. There are spa resorts filled with visitors from Saint Petersberg and Moscow, taking the waters, reminding us of the ancient traditions of Russian society.

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, by Vladimir Nabokov

     The narrator is the half brother of the writer Sebastian Knight. Despite his name, Knight was a Russian, born to an aristocratic family at the turn of the 19th to the 20th centuries. In exile he studies literature at Cambridge (was it Trinity College?). The half brother, known only as "V" - he doesn't want to tell us his name or any other personal details - lives in France, having little contact with Sebastian. Just a letter every year or two, although Sebastian, who has become a successful novelist, regularly sends him money. It is now 1938 or 39; Sebastian has died and V has decided to write his biography. Nabokov wrote the book during that time, before he had moved to America. It is the first book he wrote in English. It was published in America in 1941.
    We learn about the life of Sebastian Knight. He lived together with Clare Bishop, a woman faithfully devoted to him, typing his manuscripts, looking after him. I'm not sure if it was said that Clare was also Russian. Certainly neither her name nor that of Sebastian sounds Russian. But as with Lenin and Stalin, and even Pushkin, it seems that Russians are fond of substituting simple pseudonyms for their more complex, many syllabled real Russian names. During a separation from Clare, Sebastian meets and falls in love with a mysterious woman. While looking through Sebastian's old papers, V can find nothing to tell him who this woman was, and so he sets off on a quest to find her. Eventually he does find Nina Leclef, living in Paris. It turns out that she is also Russian, despite her name and her perfect French. She is a deceptive, manipulative woman.
    Having just before read the biography of Vladimir and Véra Nabokov, all of this sounds extremely familiar. Are we completely misplaced if we think of the following obvious associations?: Vladimir = Sebastian; Véra = Clare;  Irina Guadanini = Nina. Perhaps even adding Sergey (Valdimir's brother) = V.
    The author, Vladimir Nabokov seems to be describing his life for us: his struggles with the English language; his love for, or at least the convenience of his life with his wife Véra; his wild infatuation for Irina Guadanini. I wonder what Véra thought when typing up all this stuff. Unlike this imaginary story, the real life Vladimir Nabokov stayed with Véra and lived on for many years, writing his Lolita and all the rest.
    After finding Nina, V is filled with the guilt which followed Sebastian's death. He dreams about Sebastian and death. He was in Marseilles in the south of France, in the middle of an intense patch of work for the firm where he was employed when he received a telegram, telling him that Sebastian was in a hospital near Paris, near death. V hurries to the station; many hours on a crowded, filthy train. A taxi drive in the snowbound, icy night. Only to find that Sebastian had died the day before. V is obsessed with the thought of death. He has missed it. If only he had been with Sebastian at the moment of his death. Perhaps Sebastian would have been able to tell him what death is. To unlock this profound mystery.
    Is the presence of death, being near a dying person, the key to unlocking the mystery? If so, then we would expect hospital doctors to be enlightened. But my observation (for what little it is and what little it is worth) is that medical doctors tend to be remarkably unenlightened. What is the point of being obsessed with death? A diversion from the more important things of life.

The Candid Life of Meena Dave, by Namrata Patel

     Meena Dave is a woman of Indian descent, early 30s, a photographer, traveling about the world, her photographs published in newspapers, magazines. She is an orphan who had been lovingly brought up by a white American couple who tragically died when their house blew up in a gas explosion when Meena was 16, after which she was put in an orphanage for a few years. She learns that she has been granted a legacy in the will of somebody she doesn't know, thinking it must be something trivial. It turns out to be an apartment in an extremely luxurious house in the historical inner city of Boston, worth almost three million dollars. Her first thought is to sell it and continue with her life of continuous travel, free of commitments, attachments. She is told what the house is. It is called the Engineer House. It was started a hundred years ago with a group of Indian students who were studying at MIT, becoming a kind of fraternity. Most of the students returned to India to help build the country after independence. But a few stayed on, having families, agreeing on specific legal conditions regarding the ownership of the house and the 5 or 6 apartments it contained. Apartments could not be sold to outsiders. The ownership of an apartment passed on to the eldest child of an occupant when that eldest child reached the age of 25. But what had Meena to do with that?
    She learns that the previous owner of the apartment was a woman who had died childless. All of the other people in the house are of pure Indian descent. They seem to have lots of money. Everything is clean, perfect. They do everything together, keeping their Indian traditions, cooking Indian food. While the front door is kept locked, the doors to the apartments remain unlocked and the people move freely between the apartments, often not bothering to knock. It is a perfect little Indian village, not spoiled by all the dirt, squalor, bickering, of a real Indian village in India.
    Meena decides to keep the apartment and try living in it. Across the corridor is a wonderful, handsome, young man who would be the perfect partner for Meena. There are three older women in their 50s who gradually initiate Meena into all the wonderful things of Indian culture. It is a nice story. And there is the mystery of who Meena is; who were her biological parents, why was she given away as a baby into adoption? What has it to do with the Engineers House? At the end all is revealed and everybody lives happily ever after.

    But there are a number of problems with this story. To begin with, in the real world Meena would have had to pay a million or more in inheritance tax; impossible, given her situation. Apart from that, my skeptical mind dwelled on a few further thoughts. In Australia, which is also a country of immigrants, great emphasis was put on integrating new immigrants into the life of Australia. They were discouraged from isolating themselves into closed ghettos. Indeed, when I first moved to Germany, not thinking that I was immigrating; I was rather taking up a kind of post doctoral post for a year or two - which became a lifetime, I certainly didn't try to find Australians or Americans rather than Germans or other nationalities to be friends with. After all, if people want to immigrate to another country then they should accept what they doing; if they want to wallow in thoughts of the old country then they should get out, return to that old country and get on with life.
    But of course the great tragedy of all the displaced people who are now settling in Europe, fleeing from the countless wars of the United States, is that they can no longer return. Why aren't these displaced people sent to the United States which is the source of their plight, for example to the historic center of Boston, where they could live in closed houses and streets, forming their own ghettos.

Forbidden Notebook, by Alba de Céspedes

     This is a novel written as a diary. It was first published in 1950 in Italy in serial form in subsequent issues of a magazine, corresponding to the six months of the diary, as if it were being written by the protagonist, describing her real life from day to day. She is Valeria Cossati, living in Rome. She is 43 years old and has two children: Mirella, 20, is the daughter and Riccardo, 22, is the son. Both are studying law at university. Her husband, Michele, is somewhat older than Valeria. He works in a bank but doesn't earn enough to support the family, and so Valeria also has a job in an office. She also does all the cooking at home, the cleaning, looking after everything. A generation ago her family belonged to the aristocracy, living in a villa near Venice, but they lost everything due to mismanagement and the upheavals of the world wars. Michele does not come from an aristocratic family; in his way he does love Valeria as does she him.
    The first days of the diary tell us how she bought the notebook on a whim while out buying cigarettes for Michele. It is a secret. She won't tell anyone in the family about it. After all, whenever she tries to say anything serious, all the others laugh at her, not only the children calling her Mama, but Michele, her husband, also calls her Mama. How could Mama have a serious opinion about anything? The idea is absurd. And so she desperately thinks about different hiding places for her notebook. Of course Mirella has a diary which is in a locked drawer next to her bed, but that is understandable; Mirella is a serious law student.
    Valeria tells us about her life, her worries. The apartment is too small. There are always problems with money. Mirella needs new clothes but there is only enough for a few things. Riccardo also needs more money than the small allowance he receives.
    Mirella stays out late at night, alone with an older man of 35 who, she discovers, is already married. A scandal. Valeria stays up waiting for Mirella to return and is then angry, lecturing her about morality. A woman should marry and devote herself to the family, the children. But Mirella says that she does not want a life like that of Valeria. She is ambitious. She will leave home as soon as she becomes 21. She already has a job in a law firm and plans to move to another city, to become a successful, well-known lawyer. Valeria is constantly worrying about Mirella. What has she done wrong? Is Mirella living in sin? But her husband Michele often has private, understanding personal conversations with his daughter, which they stop when Valeria, with all her worries, comes into the room.
    Riccardo is a Mamma's child. She loves him. His law exams are coming up, but we know that he will fail them. He has been promised a job in Argentina, and he dreams of his future. And Valeria thinks with horror of the emptiness if the wonderful Riccardo were to be so far away. He has a young girlfriend, Marina, perhaps only 16 or 17. A simpleminded thing, a school dropout, vacant eyes. Valeria can't stand her. But towards the end of the notebook she is confronted with the pregnancy of Riccardo's girlfriend. They must immediately marry. Riccardo, who had always scoffed at his father and his pitiful job at the bank accepts an even more lowly position there. One idea is that Riccardo and Marina simply go alone to Argentina, leaving Valeria to take care of the baby. She thinks the idea might be wonderful, having a new baby, a grandson of Riccardo, a room of her own in Riccardo's then vacant bedroom. But Mirella pours cold water on this vision with the obvious observation that Riccardo will certainly fail his exams, nullifying the job offer in Argentina, so that all of them will be left living on top of one another in the tiny apartment with the baby and the hated Marina.
    And then it turns out that Valeria's boss at the office, the owner of the firm, is in love with her, and she with him. What a mess! She prays in the church. She imagines that this notebook is the source of her downfall. It is a sin, a work of the devil. And it is the end of the book. What had started out as a fun adventure of hiding the notebook from the family turns into a claustrophobic drama. Only Mirella is free. A dramatic, absorbing book to read.

Parisian Days, by Banine

     Banine's full name was Umm-El-Banine-Assadoulaeff, or - according to the foreword to the book - Ummulbanu Asadullayeva.  She was born in 1905 and her childhood was in Azerbaijan's Baku, before the Russian Revolution. The family was rich with all the oil of the Caspian Sea. They were not an ancient Russian family. Instead they were more like the billionaire oligarchs which all seemed to have come out of the woodwork in Eastern Europe and Russia after communism collapsed in 1990. As a child Banine was in love with a gardener on the family estate, but at 15 she was forced to marry someone else in the oligarch class who she hated. Her family escaped the Russian civil war, settling in Paris. She and her husband made it to Turkey, and then she traveled on alone to Paris in 1923, at the age of 18, separating herself from him forever. Only many years later was she able to obtain a divorce in a French court.
    The family had not had the forethought, or luck, to have transferred their riches into a Swiss bank account, and so they arrived with just what they had been able to carry with them. The jewels and other valuables kept them going for a year or two in gradually decreasing luxury, branching off into more bohemian lifestyles. Banine was able to find a job as a model at a well-known Parisian fashion house, displaying the collection for rich customers and the rest of the clientele which has undoubtedly hardly changed in the hundred years between then and now. Her photo in the Wikipedia shows a woman in the style of the 1920s; if not a beauty at least she seems more pleasant than all of those lifeless modern-day fashion models.
    Suddenly a cousin appears, full of life, throwing money away in an extravagant fashion. She is Gulnar, and Banine attaches herself to the cousin. The rest of the story is that of Gulnar's affairs, only occasionally interrupted by Banine's own modest life. It seems that Gulnar was the mistress of Otto, a German who was unfortunately married but passionately in love with Gulnar and who was seeking a divorce to free himself for Gulnar. But his business involved him traveling about for months at a time, even into Russia. Later in the story he seems to have disappeared into a communist prison, never to be seen again. For Gulnar it is a relief, a cause for celebration when Otto leaves, receiving vast amounts of his money along with his farewell tears. Gulnar flirts with various aristocratic French gentlemen. They are awkward, old men, but rich and titled, things that  Gulnar covets. Banine is given an old French doctor who has an eye clinic in Orleans. He is rich, but without a title (apart from his medical qualifications - which hardly count in the world of fashion). She visits him on weekends, telling us that she likes having sex with him, but apart from that she finds him to be a stupid, pathetic, revolting creature.
    At the end of the book we are told that Gulnar meets a young man who is the exact image of JFK (but this is back in the 1930s). He is fabulously rich, the son of a Texas oil millionaire. She marries him and disappears into Texas. We are not told how long that marriage lasted. I find it difficult to imagine the extravagant, fashionable Gulnar exchanging Paris for Dallas, or perhaps even Paris, Texas. And in the real Paris, Banine's ophthalmologist finally tells her that he has had enough of it. We vaguely learn that she lived on in the life of Paris, marrying and divorcing. The book was enjoyable to read, written in a lively style, this translation perhaps reflecting that of the French original.

A Waiter in Paris, by Edward Chisholm

     Another book about Paris. Again not a novel; a true story. The author is an Englishman who tells us that he studied Oriental and African Studies in London. What does one do with such a qualification? Go to the Orient and Africa? Or perhaps work in a bank in the City of London, dealing with Orientals and Africans. We are told that he spent countless post-graduation hours applying for jobs with no response. His French girlfriend told him that she wanted to return to Paris, and so he decided to go along with her, see what his prospects there might be. There followed further weeks of sending out job applications into the vacuous internet, camped in their tiny apartment. But at least he did enjoy spending his days walking about in Paris, finding it to be the most wonderful place on Earth, reading his copy of George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London. After a couple of months of this he still had no job. The girlfriend was offered something in a museum back in London. She left and he stayed, saying that he wanted to prove to himself that he could exist on his own.
    And so eventually he walked into a famous, luxury restaurant (he tells us that it is "Le Bistrot de la Seine", but the internet finds no such restaurant - clearly he has changed the name to avoid being sued), saying that he is an experienced waiter and that he would like a job. He soon finds out that everything is appearance. The dining room is elegant, stylish. Only well-dressed, chic people are welcome. And the famous eat here: politicians, television "news" presenters, movie actors, along with tourists wanting to be a part of fashionable Paris. It is only after finishing the book and writing this piece that I have found a photo of the author on his internet site. He is handsome, elegant. Clearly the manager of the restaurant hired him for his good looks, the beautiful Englishman, despite his obvious lack of experience and inability to speak the language. His role would be to charm the tourists with his educated English. The restaurant also maintained a collection of "hostesses": young women with long legs in short skirts, walking about, leading diners to their tables, doing nothing in particular, just to be looked at and admired.
    He was assigned the role of a "runner". That is to say he didn't take orders. Rather he supported the other waiters, bringing the plates, drinks and everything from out of the door marked "private" into the dining room on a silver platter, stacked high, balanced overhead on the left hand, to the tables, then gathering the used things to be brought back on the platter. His description of his first day was terrible. He had bought a cheap waiter's suit and black shoes which didn't fit well with the last of his money, and he was kept going from 6 in the morning till late at night without a pause. Yet he was determined to see it through, not to have another failure in his life. When reading this I remembered the sinking feeling I had when reading Down and Out in Paris and London 50 years ago. In a book we imagine ourselves being in the situation of the protagonist. What if life were to lead me into such a mess? At least now, at 75 with a comfortable pension, such thoughts are behind me.
    We are told about what happens beyond the "private" door. It is the "pass", where food comes up from the kitchens and is assembled together for the tables. The waiters in the dining room are all Europeans, with one or two elegant North Africans. Behind the door everything is non-European. At the pass are three Tamils - Tamil Tigers. There is chaos, shouting, infighting between the waiters, grovelling for tips. Down in the basement is the preparatory kitchen. Only black Africans are there, working for a pittance, illegal immigrants, hacking away at vegetables, the wet floor covered with peelings, dirt, even rats. Loud music, shouting, chaos. The products of all this are sent up in a service elevator. The main kitchen is somewhere above and it is strictly prohibited for any waiter to go up to the main kitchen. The author imagines the main kitchen being filled with exquisite chefs of the haute cuisine: a Paul Boucuse with a high, white chef's hat, a "toque blanche". What an awakening he receives after a few months in the restaurant when a lonely, middle aged American tourist orders a steak and finds it to be red inside. She asks the author to return it to the kitchen to be further cooked. The Tamils refuse to send it up. The other waiters ignore him. And so he climbs the forbidden stairs to the secret inner sanctum of the restaurant. Opening the door, he is shocked to find that it is a small, hot, loud room. The cook is a Corsican; a huge, sweaty man brandishing a huge cleaver, shouting at the others who are all black Africans. There are flames everywhere. The walls and everything else are covered with thick layers of old grease. Screaming at the author to get out, the Corsican threatens him with his knife. When he learns why he has come, his anger knows no bounds. He grabs the throat of the author with his free hand, choking him, pressing him against the greasy wall, takes the piece of meat and almost throws it on the floor, then throws it to one of the Africans working at one of the pits of fire and shouts at him to cremate it. The author escapes, almost suffocated, returning to the quiet, elegant dining room where the woman inspects the meat and decides that she can now eat it. Afterward, one of the hostesses tells the author that the back of his jacket has become greasy and dirty.
    Everybody behind the door knows that the food is rubbish. The waiters use all sorts of dirty French words to describe it. None of them, if they had the money, would eat in a restaurant like this. The food must cost 50 or 100 euros or more for a dinner. They all know that small, family restaurants are infinitely better, where a dinner costs no more than 10 or 15 euros.
    The author, Edward Chisholm, simply loves the city of Paris. I find this difficult to understand. He is prepared to put up with anything in order to stay there. He rents a tiny room in the roof of a house which costs him almost all of his earnings from the restaurant. His body is covered with red spots from the bites of bedbugs. He is worked to such a state of hunger and exhaustion that he faints, falling and breaking the bones in his hand, hitting his head on concrete into a coma. But Paris is nothing like the romantic nonsense of Hollywood movies. The air is polluted with toxic fumes; the tap water tastes and smells strongly of chlorine - who knows what sorts of dead germs are floating around in it; the streets are filled with loud, aggressively driven cars, trucks, and especially scooters making horribly loud, sudden, wasp-like screams; most of Paris consists of dangerous high-rise slums, the various races and ethnicities are living in a self-imposed apartheid, free of the police who are afraid to enter these areas.
    But from his internet page we are told that he is now living in Lausanne in Switzerland. A much, much more pleasant place! He is making a living as a writer, and I wish him well. His life has become more interesting and fascinating to read about than the lives of the two young bankers of the City of London who happened to sit at a table on the terrace of the restaurant where he was serving drinks, celebrating their bloated bonuses. He was horrified to recognize them as former fellow students of the School of Oriental and African Studies. How embarrassing that he had to serve them their drinks, expecting them to toss a few coins onto the table as a tip. At least he could move on in life. We feel sorry for the other waiters, his friends in the restaurant, who could only look forward to more of the same.