books2019.jpg

This year (2019)

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


Arthur Japin:
    The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi
Christian Kiefer:
    The Infinite Tides
Arthur Japin:
    Warlight
Rebecca Makkai:
    The The Great Believers
William Boyd:
    The Love is Blind
Alex Michaelides:
    The Silent Patient
Min Jin Lee:
    Free Food for Millionaires
    Pachinko
Junichiro Tanizaki:
    The Makioka Sisters
Amor Towles:
    Rules of Civility
Yukio Mishima:
    The Sound of Waves
Osamu Dazai:
    The Setting Sun
Lou Berney:
    November Road
Yukio Mishima:
    The Sea of Fertility
       Spring Snow
       Runaway Horses
       The Temple of Dawn
       The Decay of the Angel
Esi Edugyan:
    Washington Black
Robin P. Williams:
    Sweet Swan of Avon
Kamila Shamsie:
    Home Fire
Lisa Gray:
    Thin Air
Madeline Miller:
    The Song of Achilles
Chloe Benjamin:
    The Anatomy of Dreams
Herman Melville:
    Typee
    Moby Dick
Lisa Ballantyne:
    Three Books
Alex Sinclair:
    The Last Thing I Saw
Brigid Wefelnberg:
    The Track
Paraic O'Donnell:
    The House on Vesper Sands
Nick Alexander:
    The Photographer's Wife
Sarah Maine:
    Women of the Dunes
    The House Between the Tides
Robert Louis Stevenson:
    The Master of Ballantrae
Alex Kerr:
    Lost Japan
Kate Atkinson:
    Case Histories

The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi, by Arthur Japin

     Kwasi 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the author explains how he has used the personal letters of Boakye and his correspondents, along with many further historical documents, so it must be true to life.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 Infinite Tides, by Christian Kiefer

    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 astronaut's wife.
    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.

Warlight, 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 British history.
    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 watching.

The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai

    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 Numbers.  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 cofactors be?
    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 on.
    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.

Love is Blind, by William Boyd

    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 perfection.
    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.

The Silent Patient, by Alex Michaelides

    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 tragedy 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.

Free Food for Millionaires, by Min Jin Lee

    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 York.
    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 Chung-hee. 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 suffered.
    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 the world.
    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.

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

    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 such.
    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 the period.
    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.

The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki

    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.

Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles

    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 hysterical present.
    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.

The Sound of Waves, by Yukio Mishima

    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 woman, 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.
    The author 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, the 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 in time.

The Setting Sun, by Osamu Dazai

    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.
    The author 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.

November Road, by Lou Berney

    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 that Carlos Marcello could have been alone responsible. And even if he, or Santo Trafficante, or Meyer Lansky, 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 Edgar Hoover and the FBI would give them no trouble.

The Sea of Fertility, by Yukio Mishima

    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, 1970.
    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 Seidensticker. 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 in India.

Spring Snow

    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 impossible.
    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.

Runaway Horses

    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 falls."
    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 Rebellion 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 his eyelids."
    I wonder if poor Mishima himself had such a pleasant, euphoric, real-life experience?

The Temple of Dawn

    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 Prince Pattanadid.
    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 deepest soul.
    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 Meiji Gardens, 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.

The Decay of the Angel

    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 existed.
    She says, "Such documents might solve problems in the other world. But do you really know a person called Kiyoaki?"
    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?

Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan

    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 become bankrupt.
    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 passing ship.
    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 Equiano when writing this one.

Sweet Swan of Avon, by Robin P. Williams

    As I have learned, there is nothing professors of literature find to be more offensive than The Authorship Question. 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 detail.
    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 that time.
    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 website, 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.

Home 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 England.
    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 unfortunate.
    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 around me?
    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.

Thin Air, by Lisa Gray

    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 Chandler.

The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller

    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 the Cypria, 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.

The Anatomy of Dreams, by Chloe Benjamin

    This one is concerned with the phenomenon of lucid dreaming; 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.

Typee, 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 Typee.
    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 prison.
    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.

Moby Dick

    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 such circumstances.
    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 entry 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 his wife.

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.

Three Books, by Lisa Ballantyne

    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 childhood depravity?
    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 Liar". 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 Road". 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 Cornwall.
    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 identity.
    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 memories.

The Last Thing I Saw, by Alex Sinclair

    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.

The 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 exertions.
    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 Track, 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 des Sables 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.

The House on Vesper Sands, by Paraic O'Donnell

    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 about.
    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 Photographer's Wife, by Nick Alexander

    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.

Women of the Dunes and The House Between the Tides, by Sarah Maine

    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 will.
    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 dramas.

The Master of Ballantrae, by Robert Louis Stevenson

    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.

Lost Japan, by Alex Kerr

    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 link 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 Japan.
    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.

Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson

    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.