This year (2023)

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David Mitchell:
    The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet
Abir Mukherjee:
    A Rising Man
    A Necessary Evil
Ovidia Yu:
    The Mimosa Tree Mystery
    The Frangipani Tree Mystery
    The Betel Nut Tree Mystery
    The Paper Bark Tree Mystery
James Nestor:
    Breath

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, by David Mitchell

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

A Rising Man, by Abir Mukherjee

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

A Necessary Evil , by Abir Mukherjee

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

The Mimosa Tree Mystery, by Ovidia Yu

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

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

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

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

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

Breath, by James Nestor

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