books2022

This year (2022)

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


Philippa Gregory:
    Tidelands & Dark Tides
Stacey Halls:
    The Familiars
    Mrs England
    The Foundling
Jack London:
    The Sea-Wolf
    Martin Eden
Hayley Mills:
    Forever Young
John Banville:
    April in Spain & Mefisto
    Snow
    The Newton Letter
    Even the Dead
    The Book of Evidence
Benjamin Black:
    Christine Falls
    The Silver Swan
    Elegy for April
    A Death in Summer
    Vengeance
    Holy Orders
Lisa See:
    Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Douglas Hurd:
    Robert Peel, a Biography
Claire Tomalin:
    Samuel Pepys, The Unequaled Self
Kathy Glass:
    Hidden: Betrayed exploited and forgotten
Rudolf Steiner:
    Christianity as Mystical Fact and the Mysteries of Antiquity
Cecil Lewis:
    Sagittarius Rising
Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele:
    Howard Hughes: His Life & Madness
J. Randy Taraborrelli:
    Sinatra: Behind the Legend
Benjamin Black:
    Prague Nights
Adam Zamoyski:
    Napoleon: The Man Behind the Myth
Stephane Baillon:
    Romeo and Juliet are Sandro Botticelli and Simonetta Vespucci
Walter Isaacson:
    Leonardo da Vinci
James Gleick:
    Isaac Newton
Naomi Wolf:
    The Bodies of Others
Miranda Malins:
    The Puritan Princess
Peter Godfrey-Smith:
    Other Minds
Sonia Shah:
    The Fever
Rhys Bowen:
    The Tuscan Child
Thomas Halliday:
    Otherlands

Tidelands & Dark Tides, by Philippa Gregory

     These are two books, the second of which is a continuation of the first, thus making two parts of a single story. In Tidelands the time is 1648. Oliver Cromwell is in charge of his New Model Army, forging a New Normal for England. The King, Charles, has been arrested and is being confined - more or less - to a house on the Isle of Wight. From there he appeals to the Scots, the Welsh, perhaps even the Irish, to take up arms against the New Model Army to defend his God-given position as divine leader of England. On the "Continent" the Peace of Westphalia has just been agreed, ending the Thirty Years War. All of this is usually represented as being a matter of religious fanatics killing one another; an example of "mass formation psychosis". But was this true? Was it really a psychosis similar to the madness we are living in today which is driven by the irrational idea that Death can be conquered by injecting magic scientific potions into the body every few months? And did all those people around the time of 1648 kill each other merely because they had different ideas about what is the true doctrine to tell us what we should expect to find after Death? The story in this book gives us a different perspective. Accordingly it was a matter of the masses of normal people revolting against the injustice of those days. The fact that everything was owned by a few oligarchs - the aristocracy. The normal people "owned nothing and were not happy". Such is the background to the story of these books.
    We are concerned with simple folk living in a fictional place called Sealsea Island which we are told is such that Chichester is about 8 or 10 miles to the north. Looking at the map I see that there is a real-life town named Selsey on the south coast of England about 10 miles south of Chichester. However Selsey is not an island, nor is it a tideland, being situated behind a well-defined beach and consisting of summer cottages. Perhaps we should think slightly to the west, for example Thorney Island, near the Chichester harbor and yacht club.
    The heroine is Alinor, a woman in her mid 20s with two children in their early teens. (Things progressed rapidly in those days!) Her husband, a fisherman, disappeared a year ago, leaving her practically destitute, dressed in rags, living on meager portions of thin gruel. She also serves as a midwife to the peasants of the island. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, James, a finely dressed gentleman in his early 20s appears, asking for help. She leads him to the house of the local squire, Sir William Peachey. We discover that James has been transported over from France where he has become a Catholic priest and a member of a monastery. His mission is to conduct secret and private masses in the castles of those aristocrats who have not rejected popery. Also he is to organize an escape for King Charles, finding a ship to carry him from the Isle of Wight to his remaining admirers in France. All of this falls through. But at least James falls madly in love with Alinor, and she with him.
    During a few days of torrid sex a baby is conceived. Also in another thread of the story, Alinor's precocious daughter Alys has become pregnant to the local farmyard hero. James travels away on his important mission, promising to return to carry Alinor away. He is in London, observing the legal process against King Charles and the subsequent beheading. Upon his return, Alinor, who has suddenly discovered her own pregnancy, tells James. He is dumbfounded. - Perhaps in those days Catholic priests were not informed about the Birds and the Bees. - He insists that Alinor do something to get rid of it. She doesn't. And in the other thread of the story, Alys steals the money for the dowry her lover's parents are insisting upon. All of this leads to violent scenes and the accusation that Alinor is a witch. James wants nothing to do with the whole business; Alinor is subjected to a trial by dunking which she barely survives; Sir William Peachey declares that she is thus not a witch; and finally Alys forces James to give up a few coins, sufficient to enable both her and Alinor to escape to London.
    So ends the first book.
    Therefore I thought it would be interesting to see how things go on with the second book.
    It is now 21 years later. Alinor and Alys have a small warehouse on the south bank of the Thames. Suddenly James appears. He is Sir James Avery, the owner of a huge mansion on The Strand as well as huge properties and castles on his lands somewhere in the north of England. He assumes that Alinor has borne a son which is his heir who has now come of age. An interesting idea with the potential for producing further drama...
    Unfortunately though, the author found it necessary to tell three or four other, completely different stories in an endless series of short chapters jumping back and forth between one and the next. We have the brother of Alinor somewhere in the backwoods of New England, siding with the Indians rather than with his fellow puritan settlers. This story had absolutely nothing to do with the main story. Then there is a story of intrigue and seduction in Venice and London. A hopeless mishmash. What a disappointment.

The Familiars, by Stacey Halls

     It is 1612. Queen Elizabeth has been succeeded by King James who, famously, wrote the book, Daemonologie, which is concerned with the problem of witches. Indeed, the Witchcraft Act of 1542 deals with people who:
... use devise practise or exercise, or cause to be devysed practised or exercised, any Invovacons or cojuracons of Sprites witchecraftes enchauntementes or sorceries to thentent to fynde money or treasure or to waste consume or destroy any persone in his bodie membres...
Accordingly, in the modern world William Henry ("Bill") Gates III is a witch. In Scotland witches were burned at the stake. In England they were hanged; perhaps a more humane method of getting rid of them.
    The book is concerned with the Lancaster witches. Twelve people were accused of witchcraft. Of those, 10 were hanged, one died in prison, and one, Alice Grey, was acquitted. All of these historical figures with their stories, as related by Thomas Potts in his The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster are characters in this novel, as is Thomas Potts himself as well as the horrible magistrate Roger Nowell. The story is built around a fictional character with a beautiful name: Fleetwood Shuttleworth. She has not yet reached the age of twenty, but she has already had three painful stillbirths. She is much in love with her husband, Richard, as is he with her. They are the wealthy owners of extensive lands and manor houses. Alice Grey is a poor, almost destitute woman who is a midwife, gathering herbs and other plants to help women through the travails of pregnancy. And thus a dramatic story develops with Fleetwood saving Alice who helps her with her pregnancy.

Mrs England, by Stacey Halls

     I enjoyed the last one so much that I thought I'd try another of the stories of Stacey Halls. As with the first, this is inspired by an actual historical event. On the night of the 18th of September 1896, Charles Albert Browne threw two of his daughters 75 meters down into the waters below the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Both survived. The elder daughter, Ruby, suffered no lasting physical injuries (but see the previous book: The Body Keeps the Score for an account of the mental injuries, particularly given that it was her father), while the younger daughter, Elsie, was partially paralyzed. The father was put into the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, but then we are told that he was discharged into the care of his wife in 1899. Imagine the horror this would have been for the poor girls, always knowing that their father could strike again at any time in the middle of the night. Thankfully in the story of the book, the author has the father dying in the lunatic asylum. But nevertheless, Ruby, whose last name has become May, continues to suffer the consequences.
    We only learn about all of this towards the end of the book. Ruby has graduated from a posh college for nurses. So she is Nurse May. However she does not work in a hospital handing the surgeons their gleaming instruments, or caring for the patients lying in their beds. Instead she has been trained to look after the children of wealthy families, wearing the stylish uniform associated with the college. We are told that she is not a "nursemaid". Looking it up in the Wikipedia I see that a nursemaid is considered to be inferior, or assistant to, a more senior "nurse". This more senior grade of childminder is also known as a "nanny". And then we have the idea of a governess, someone who is expected to not only look after the children of the rich, but to teach them as well. Judging from the writings of the Brontë sisters, such a role, teaching rich little brats, must have been horrible. But in this book everything is sweetness and loving care, with the four children of the England family loving and worshiping Nurse May above everything else.
    Getting started in the book we wonder about the strange behavior of Mrs. England and the almost overly friendly reception by Mr. England. They own a cotton mill somewhere in the north of England. I forget exactly the time of the story, but it must be sufficient for Ruby to have grown up after the trauma of 1896 and gotten through college, so perhaps it would be around 1905. Mrs. England's parents and grand parents have much more extensive textile factories than that of the England family, and they live in huge mansions. But they seem strangely cold and reserved. What are the hidden secrets? How will it all end?

The Foundling, by Stacey Halls

     The time of the story is 1747, and then a couple of years afterwards in 1752, so it is placed half way between the two previous novels. This time there seems to be no particular historical event forming the basis of the story, and perhaps for this reason it feels contrived and unlikely.
    We learn about the Foundling Hospital; there is a map of London at the beginning of the book, showing us where it was located. My Kindle does not make a good job of displaying such illustrations so I found a better map of London online, showing the whole situation. This is John Rocque's Map of 24 sheets, and we find the Foundling Hospital, seeming to be smaller than the description given to us by Stacey Halls, when double-clicking for magnification on sheet C1. It was out in the fields to the north of town. Of course in modern London, sheet C1 is the middle of the city, in Bloomsbury, and the Foundling Hospital has been replaced by the Foundling Museum.
    The idea was that babies of destitute mothers might, depending on a lottery system, be admitted to the Hospital where they would be looked after and then educated to the extent of becoming useful laborers in the case of boys, or servants in the case of girls.
    In the story of the book, a poor woman admires a handsome young man from afar. She sees him entering a pub and lingers outside, waiting for him. He takes her into a dark alley, lifts her skirts, inserts himself and thus fathers a baby. She sees no more of the man but, being secretly in love with him, learns that he has died. Nine months later she gives the baby up into the Foundling Hospital. Five years after that she wants to retrieve her daughter. It turns out that the baby had been retrieved by the wife of the father of the baby the day after it was given up. This wife, or widow, lives as a recluse, suffering from post traumatic stress disorder induced by having seen both her parents shot dead by highwaymen when she was a small child. And so she confined the child to a close isolation. But then our heroine, the actual mother, managed to become the nursemaid to the child. Immediately, without knowing the truth of her parentage, the young girl falls totally under the influence, the love, of the nursemaid - her biological mother - and she hates her false, apparent mother. And we are continually confronted with the discrepancy between the inherited wealth of the false mother and the grinding poverty of the true mother. What is to be the fate of the child? Such is the story. There are further contrived twists to the plot. The young doctor who is the director of the Foundling Hospital is in love with the false mother (or is it only her wealth?) despite the fact that she is depicted as being an unpleasant monster. All of this was rather a let-down, particularly since I had enjoyed the story of Fleetwood Shuttleworth and the Lancaster Witches.

The Sea-Wolf, by Jack London

     I've been reading lots of books written by women, probably for women, and so I was in the mood to read something more masculine. Something by Jack London. I must have read The Call of the Wild many years ago, but if so I have completely forgotten about it. I do remember having read John Barleycorn. There the author tells us about his alcoholism, describing in great detail the depravity of it all. A disturbing and unsettling book. Looking at the pictures of Jack London in his Wikipedia article and reading about his life we do not see an aggressive, brutal, masculine figure in the style of an Ernest Hemingway. He had sensitive features. The Klondike Gold Rush was a catastrophe for him. His California ranch was a failure. But he seemed to be always in search of adventure and this led to him becoming an extremely successful author.
    The story of the book starts off with Humphrey Van Weyden, a literary critic, on a ferry in San Francisco Bay, traveling from Sausalito across the Golden Gate back to the city. Of course the bridge had not yet been built when the book was published in 1904. There is a thick fog, and he speaks with his neighbor who tells him how dangerous this is. Suddenly the ferry is struck by another ship and sinks. Humphrey is in the freezing water, lost in the fog, drifting out to sea. A schooner passes by and picks him up. They are going across the Pacific to Japan and the seal hunting grounds. The captain is Wolf Larson. Humphrey expects to be put ashore, or at least transferred to a passing ship returning to San Francisco. He is prepared to pay a great amount of money for the service. But Larson refuses. He laughs at Humphrey, calling him "Hump", telling him that he should learn to earn his own living rather than just living off society using the money that his father has left him.
    Larson turns out to be a brutal character, murdering sailors on a whim. But he is self-educated and widely read. Humphrey and Larson have long conversations, disputes on philosophy. Is the human condition characterized by finer, moral values, or is the only purpose of life the satisfaction of ones own desires, regardless of what brutalities those desires might involve? Various philosophers are bandied about. In particular Nietzsche plays a role.
    Somewhere about the house we have a dusty old volume of the works of Nietzsche, printed in a fraktur typeface. But I decided to download Also Sprach Zarathustra from Project Gutenberg. For the last few years, gutenberg.org has been blocked in Germany owing to the fact that some German publisher claimed the rights to some sort of ancient book, and started litigation. But thankfully that must have been resolved since the blockage has now been lifted.
    I have now made it through the first part of Zarathustra. Rather heavy going. For lighter relief I have started on another of Jack London's books. Zarathustra (or Zoroaster) was thought to have lived over 3000 years ago and is considered by some to be the first philosopher in history. In Nietzsche's version he begins by emerging from his cave and standing in the light of the sun. He descends from the mountains to teach humanity. His first lecture is to the inhabitants of a mountain village. He speaks about the will to live, the striving for success, but this did not go down well and he was kicked out of town. Then there follows a long sequence of short chapters on various aspects of life and of people. Lots of disjointed ideas, saying one thing and another, often seemingly unrelated to one another. I see that there have been various translations into English, but I can hardly imagine how that would be possible. For example think of translating Finnegan's Wake into some other language. You would end up inventing a jumble of language which has a more or less tenuous relation to the original. And with Also Sprach Zarathustra we have a language and a world which has changed beyond all recognition in the time since it was published in the 1880s.
    For example the word "Übermensch" is usually translated into English as the word "Superman". We think of Clark Kent, donning his costume and jumping over skyscrapers. Or we think of Nazis and concentration camps. In the present book Wolf Larson is taken as an example of such an Übermensch. In contrast Humphrey Van Weyden is a civilized "Normal-mensch". But all of this is not really what Nietzsche is saying. Übermensch is not particularly a word in the German language. But Untermensch is. That is someone who is down-trodden, hopeless, poor. And yes, also someone who is subhuman. A Nazi would apply the term to Jewish people, Africans, even Asians. But that was not the case with Nietzsche. For him, becoming an Übermensch was an uplifting idea, raising oneself to a higher level of existence. Of course I really have no time or inclination for vague philosophical thoughts. But I do plan on gradually making my way to the end of Also Sprach Zarathustra. It is true that there is a kind of rhythm to the language. Nietzsche was a friend of Wagner, and he imagined that some of his text could be set to music. And of course we have the wonderfully inspiring settings of Mahler and Strauss.
    Finally the schooner reaches the hunting grounds off Japan. They encounter a small boat filled with people who have been shipwrecked. Most are sailors, but there is also a lady, Maud Brewster. And they are also kidnapped by Wolf Larson. She is a poet and it turns out that she knows of Humphrey and he of her. There are literary conversations, with Larson an amused listener. After various dramatic moments, Humphrey and Maud escape in one of the ship's boats. They fight storms, nearly drowning, but eventually, after what seems like weeks, being driven by the wind and the seas, they happily drift into a protected cove within a larger cove on a deserted island, perhaps somewhere along the Aleutian chain. They begin to survive and to fall in love with one another. But then one day, the derelict schooner happens to drift into exactly the same cove within a cove on this same remote island. This is as ridiculous a twist of the plot as is that in Jane Eyre.
    (Jack London - and also Charlotte Brontë - should have thought through what they were going to write before getting lost in such nonsense!)
    Anyway, the ship is deserted except for Larson, who seems sick. He tries to kill them, without success. He dies himself, and Humphrey and Maud, having repaired the ship, disappear into the sunset, living happily ever after.
    It is said that the character of Wolf Larson was based on the real life character of someone named Captain Alexander McLean. But surely if a captain of such a wild hunting ship, filled with brutal hunters and tough sailors, terrorized and murdered one after the other of the crew, then he would himself have been quickly murdered. After all, even an Übermensch like Larson would have to sleep and be vulnerable to a knife in the back or some other method of dispatching him, thus proving the falsity of this interpretation of Nietzsche's philosophy.

Martin Eden, by Jack London

     A rough young man, Martin Eden, on the ferry from San Francisco to Oakland, sees someone being attacked by ruffians. He steps in with his fists, coming to the aid of the stranger. And so he is invited to the house of the Morse family for dinner. They are of a finer class. The father is a rich lawyer, the brother whom Martin has saved is a student at the University of California at Berkeley, as is the daughter, Ruth. Martin sways in with his seaman's gait, feeling awkward in his muscular, working mans body and clothes, embarrassed by his halting, grammatically challenged speech full of slang and double-negatives, and he is bowled over by the beauty and refinement of Ruth. Yet all are thankful that he has saved the brother, and they listen eagerly to his seaman's yarns of his travels about the Pacific and his visits to foreign lands. Ruth is both repelled and fascinated by his muscular strength. She says in parting that he should call again. And so a deep relationship develops between Martin and Ruth. She teaching him to speak English properly, he burying himself in books, seeking self-improvement, reading, writing, studying all day, allowing himself only 5 hours sleep each night and even resenting this time away from his studies.
    Within a short time he speaks correctly, at least according to the standards of Ruth and the Morse family, and he has mastered literature and philosophy to the extent of being able to talk down to a professor of something or other from Berkley who is visiting the Morse household. Martin's ambition is to become a famous best-selling writer, dashing off novels, poems, critical essays, and gathering in huge royalties. He produces reams of manuscripts, sending them off to one magazine after the other. And he is astonished to find that they are rejected. Everything is rejected. Yet he knows that what he has produced is better than the stuff which fills those magazines.
    He has no income, despite working 19 hours each day. This is all for Ruth; he imagines that when he becomes rich and famous they will marry. Ruth is also in love and would like to marry him, but she sees that his writing is leading nowhere. Martin pawns his bicycle, his good suit; he often goes hungry; Ruth's father offers him a position as clerk in his office. He should get a real job. But Martin knows that he is superior to all that. He insults the father and a visiting judge with arrogant philosophical posturings. He is rejected by the family, and Ruth tells Martin that it is all over between them.
    Unexpectedly, a manuscript is accepted and he receives 5 dollars. It was a long manuscript. He had read somewhere that magazines pay 2 cents per word, but counting the number of words in his manuscript he realizes that he is only getting a tenth of a cent. Or something. Then another manuscript is accepted and he is promised 40 dollars, but the money never comes. An empty promise. He is disillusioned. He gives up writing. Wandering back to the slums of Oakland he meets his old crowd and a true woman, Lizzy, who loves him beyond anything. But he is no longer part of them. Gradually more and more of his old manuscripts are accepted. Money starts to roll in. He is rich and famous. Ruth now wants to marry him; the mother is suddenly friendly. But Martin asks why? He is the same person as before. These are the same manuscripts which everybody rejected when he was poor and half starving. The world is false and meaningless. (But why didn't he go back to poor Lizzy?) He takes a cruise into the Pacific on a luxury steamer and in the middle of the night drops silently into the ocean, drowning himself.
    The moral of the story? Riches and Fame don't make you happy?
    I wondered how much of this was autobiographical. Jack London didn't drown himself, but he did die at the age of 40, overdosing on morphine, perhaps a suicide. Particularly at the end of the book, Nietzsche is referred to, and during Martin's arrogant rants, Nietzsche's philosophy is propounded. I am still slowly reading through Also Sprach Zarathustra. My mistake at first was to think of reading it smoothly, from page to page. The chapters are short and the sentences are clear and concise. But often, at least at first, they seem to give little sense. It is perhaps a kind of poetry in prose. There is an iconic picture of Nietzsche, a drawing of the ill philosopher taken from a photograph after he had become insane, just before his death. His insanely huge mustache and sunken eyes. But as a younger man he was quite handsome. He became a professor of classics at the University of Basel when he was 24 years old. And he did not look like a muscular superman.

Forever Young, by Hayley Mills

     Along with thousands, if not millions of other teenagers back in the early 1960s, I was in love with the actress Hayley Mills. I must have watched the movies she made with Walt Disney. Later, perhaps much later when it was shown on TV, I saw Tiger Bay, her first movie. Then when visiting Plymouth for various weeks ten years ago, I remembered that first film and so got the DVD. What a delight it was to again see the 12 year old Hayley Mills playing opposite Horst Buchholz. In fact Hayley Mills tells us in this book that she was secretly, totally in love with Horst, and she dreamed that perhaps in 10 years when she had grown up they might make a sequel to Tiger Bay with the character of Horst Buchholz, now 35 years old, being released from prison to fall in love with the mature 22 year old Gillie, and then in real life Hayley and Horst would marry and live happily ever after. Tiger Bay has been made available in its full length on YouTube. A wonderful film, not to be compared with the childish kitsch of Disney.
    We are told of her feelings for Walt Disney. He was almost a second father for her. Whatever else one might say about him, he certainly was a man of high moral standards, far different from the sleazy Hollywood figures we read about who are only too eager to exploit those under them. For Hayley Mills the Disney studios were a second family. At the end of her exclusive contract with them she was offered a further contract. She was now about 18 and thinking of other roles.
    Earlier, when she was 14 she had been offered the role of Lolita in Stanley Kubrik's film, but Disney refused to let her have it. She very much regretted this. She herself was feeling the emotions, the awkwardness of entering puberty, and she could imagine a Humbert Humbert. (But really, Sue Lyon, the actress who played the role was much more in character, despite what Hayley Mills might have felt.) Instead she was allowed to star in an independent, black and white British film, Whistle Down the Wind, based on a story written by her mother. The story takes place in the rural north of England. A girl, played by Hayley, discovers an injured man hiding in the family barn. He is a murderer. She asks him who he is. He exclaims, "Jesus Christ" to express the hopelessness of his situation. So she believes he is the biblical Christ, tells lots of other children, they flock to see him, but in the end he is taken away by the police. We are told that the film was a great success in England and also in America. As with Tiger Bay, it can be freely seen in YouTube. I find it difficult to understand the critical praise it received back then. The Lolita-like Hayley Mills, at 14, is much taller than all the other little children in the film who are perhaps between 7 and 10 years old. It is simply unbelievable that a 14 year old girl could be so silly. At least the children playing her brother and sister fitted into their roles.
    Then when she was 18 or 19 and free of Disney contracts she was in The Family Way. Again an independent British film, in color this time, the north of England, but in a dreadfully small, almost claustrophobic, working class house in a dreary, dirty city. The story is that she marries the son of the family; the money for the honeymoon has been stolen, and so they exist in small rooms with paper-thin walls, surrounded by the rude conversations of everybody. In this situation the newly married husband is unable to consummate the marriage. Eventually the brother, or somebody else, does. There is even a fleeting nude scene. I remember going to the movies and seeing the film as a student back then and feeling that she had somehow violated whatever it was that we had felt for her. And in the book she tells us about all of her feelings when making the film. She even thought of suicide, closing her eyes, putting her foot down on the accelerator and driving her car off the road. But she did not manage to kill herself. Instead the car ran softly into a bush, and so she reversed out and drove back to the studio. Back in those student days I read that she had married someone who was more than 30 years older than she was. She was no longer a lovable little girl.
    In fact by the time she tells us about her marriage to Roy Boulting, the book is almost at an end. She mentions the forgettable films and not so forgettable stage performances which came later, but that is no longer part of being "Forever Young". The marriage to Boulting did not last long. She had a son with him (it was his 5th or 6th son, and his fourth marriage). She never married again, having another son with somebody else, and for the last 20 years her partner has been a very pleasant looking man who is 20 years younger than she is. She tells us that she was very close to Andrew Birkin, someone her age, the brother of Jane, even in love with him, but she was afraid of losing him if they were to marry.
    She tells us about all the famous actors and actresses she worked with: "Larry" Olivier, "Dicky" Attenborough, and so on. They are all sweet, wonderful. Filming a big movie, the cast and the production team are all intimately together for months at a time, becoming great friends, telling stories, jokes. Or being part of a traveling stage production for weeks and months is an even more totally fulfilling emotional experience. Yet when the film is finished or the play has come to an end, everybody has a farewell party, they go their own ways, and there comes an emptiness. Thankfully Hayley Mills, at now 75, has retained her youthful, even childlike optimism and her love for her children and grandchildren.
    We imagine those famous Hollywood actors living in their mansions in Beverly Hills, or out in Malibu, throwing extravagant parties, driving exclusive, expensive cars, enjoying all their riches. But unfortunately this is not the case with child actors. Their parents have control of the money. For example we are told that Shirley Temple, the darling of the 1930s, upon reaching 21 and being allowed to take control of her finances, discovered that only $10,000 remained. Her parents had spent all the rest. The situation with Hayley Mills was different. Her father was himself a famous actor with no time for all that paperwork, and so he simply left everything to the family lawyer. Often a dangerous policy!
    The family lawyer was a comfortable, established man with pleasant offices in London. He was welcomed into the family home. A father figure and an intimate friend of the family. He took his 2 or 3% or more, year for year, all very proper. Hayley Mills received £10,000 for each of her 6 films with Disney. In today's devalued money that would be about $200,000 per film. Invested sensibly between 1960 and 1967 it should have given say two million of today's dollars. On her 21st birthday she went happily into the offices of the family lawyer, having given little thought to all of her earnings until then. They gave her a thick manila envelope from the British tax authorities, informing her that everything was to be taxed at the rate of 95%!! Adding to that the fees taken out by the lawyer, she was in fact deeply in debt as a reward for all her work as a child. Such was the rapacious Labour Government of Harold Wilson's Britain. For some obscure reason which she doesn't explain in the book, if the lawyer had taken some action before her 21st birthday then this tax would not have applied. Roy Boulting advised her to sue the lawyer, but how could she do that? Instead she followed the advice of the lawyer, contesting the tax in the courts, one appeal after the other up to the High Court, and even in the end to the House of Lords which was the ultimate authority. At each stage of the litigation the lawyer's fees increased, as did Hayley Mills' debts proportionately. The end result was that she lost. But she put this behind her and went on with life.

April in Spain & Mefisto, by John Banville

     We start off with a man and a woman on holiday in the town of San Sebastian in the Basque region of Spain. Gradually we learn that he is Irish, a drinker, and a pathologist in Dublin. His wife is a psychiatrist, Jewish, having fled from the Nazis. It is some time in the late 1950s or early 1960s. While drinking in one of the local bars he spots what he believes to be a familiar face, someone from the past, but he can't quite place her, and so an elaborate story develops. The mysterious woman was supposed to have been killed years ago by her brother who himself committed suicide. She belongs to a powerful political dynasty in Ireland with family secrets. The fact that the woman is living secretly in Spain, if known, would lead to the downfall of the family. And so a killer is organized to get rid of her.
    How does a prominent family go about eliminating an unwanted member? Obviously I have no idea at all. But if for example we were to take at face value some of the various lines of speculation concerning the death of Princess Diana, then it would seem that there exist agencies within the tentacles of government to deal with such a situation on a professional level. Did there exist such things in Ireland in the 1950s and 60s? Who knows? In any case the killer in the story is just an isolated little man with a troubled childhood who happens to have randomly come to the attention of the civil servant who has been assigned the task of dealing with the situation. We follow the killer about, getting to know his feelings for things, his lack of plans, the spontaneity of his actions. And we follow all the other characters as well.
    Wonderfully elegant writing, often amusing. A great book.

    After finishing April in Spain, I looked for something else by John Banville. It seems that he has written a whole series of these detective stories. But then I saw that he had also written a book which was said to be based on mathematical ideas, Mefisto, and so I downloaded that. What a disappointment! It was a long-winded narrative of a character doing one thing and another, each of these things being irrelevant to the further development of whatever plot there was, and all being described in tedious detail. The character was supposed to be interested in mathematics. A few unrelated and often falsely used mathematical words are thrown in. I plodded through to the end of Part 1, hoping it might improve. And I even got halfway through Part 2 before giving up. The character is interacting with some sort of strange computer, reflecting the fantasies of science fiction authors of the 1930s. Yet the book was first published in 1986, a time when the author would have been aware of the reality of personal computers. The title of the book reminds us of the Faust Legend. Whether or not the book had anything to do with that was not apparent.
    I wonder if the author, having arrived with all the rest of us in the year 2022, has grasped the truly diabolical nature of computers. We are now expected to carry around with us these horrible little objects which are filled with various features, doing who knows what, capable of spying on our every activity, and which are necessary for proving that certain aspects of our bodily activities satisfy the given norm. A new kind of pact with the Devil.

Snow, by John Banville

     Undeterred by the previous book, I read another detective story by John Banville. This time we have a Catholic priest being murdered in a run-down stately home of the earlier Protestant aristocracy in rural Ireland in 1957. I wonder if Banville himself is a Protestant. The story develops in the style of Agatha Christie. But before the halfway point it diverges from that style since by then it becomes clear to the reader "who done it". It was again a beautifully written story, but the theme is unpleasant.
    The aristocracy of the Catholic Church, all those bishops, cardinals, popes, continue today to reside in the their palaces, surrounded by riches. Yet unlike 1957, they are now openly confronted with the corruption and sins which were committed in those days. Undoubtedly in another 50 years - around 2075 - the bishops, cardinals, popes of the future, residing in their palaces, enjoying their riches, will apologize for the corruption and sins which are being committed today. This is not to say that I would favor one particular religion over another. But it was a very overdue reform which was enacted by Martin Luther back in 1517 when he declared that priests should be allowed to marry.
    Modern popular culture is obsessed with sexuality. And so the question naturally arises as to why a young man would voluntarily enter into a closed male society in which the rule of celibacy is enforced. I am sure that it is not the case that all Catholic priests are homosexual. And I know that not all homosexuals are pedophiles, just as I know that not all heterosexuals are pedophiles. Nevertheless the victim of the murder in this story was a Catholic priest who 10 years before this time, in 1947, was one of the Catholic brothers responsible for an institution for delinquent boys. And in a disgusting chapter he describes his feelings of euphoric religious exultation while thrusting himself into the anus of "his" defenseless, trapped, 9 year old boy, watching him tremble, crying with pain, clutching the alter. This troubled boy has grown up, turning into an awkward, bumbling fool. He is the groom of the estate, and the priest, Father Tom, enjoys hobnobbing with the upper classes, hunting, keeping his horse in the stables.
    The story is told through the experiences of Detective Inspector Strafford. He is Protestant. But still he is summoned to an audience with the high priest of Ireland. The Bishop or Archbishop or whatever of Dublin or something. A very dangerous man who makes it crystal clear to Strafford that he will be destroyed if the affair were to become public.
    But beside all this religious darkness we learn much of the other characters, making for an enjoyable read.

The Newton Letter, by John Banville

     Mefisto, Banville's earlier book, had little to do with Faust or mathematics despite the fact that such things were advertised in the blurb. Thus I didn't expect this book to have much to do with Newton. But he wasn't wholly absent. As is the case with many people, a phase of intense creativity in young years is followed by a period of stagnation later on. A mid-life crisis. Newton turned to the Bible, imagining it to be a scientific treatise, written by God, which when examined carefully would yield the secrets of the Universe. He also delved into alchemy, mixing chemicals, poisoning himself, perhaps leading to madness in later life, with the dream of amassing never ending golden riches.
    The hero of the present book is writing a biography of Newton, concentrating on this interesting phase of his life. He has been working on the book for seven years, but now he has realized that this project is nothing more than useless nonsense, and so he has given up and rented a place - what used to be the gatekeepers cottage - on a rundown estate somewhere in the back woods of Ireland for the summer. And thus ends all reference to Newton.
    The remnants of the ancient aristocratic family consist of two sisters, a child, and a man who may or may not be the husband of one of the sisters. The less attractive one, the sister without the man, throws herself at the hero, and they subsequently spend most of the summer together in bed. The book is then concerned with philosophical observations on the role of intimacy when dealing with persons one finds to be slightly repellent.
    To be honest, I would have preferred to read about the details of Newton's excursions into the realms of speculative religion and the esoteric rather than this somewhat banal story.

Even the Dead, by Benjamin Black (John Banville)

     Banville has written seven books under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. These are crime stories involving Quirke, a pathologist with a difficult background in the Dublin of the 1950s. The first book of Banville which I read, April in Spain, was also a Quirke book, but published under his real name. And then Snow is also a crime novel, continuing the series, but the character of Quirke no longer takes an active part. These books are completely different in style from the two "serious" Banville books which I have read up to now. They are fluent, direct, full of atmosphere. A style which would disgust the academic judges of all those literary prizes. The rambling, train-of-thought writing of the more serious Banville was indeed such that he received the Booker Prize in 2005 for The Sea. But reading the reviews of that book suggest that it would not appeal to me.
    The present book is the seventh in the Quirke series. I thought maybe I could read backwards through the series, ending up at the first volume, Christine Falls. But then I suspect that the later books reveal details which in the earlier books remained mysterious, thus reading of consequences before knowing what the actions were which preceded them. In this seventh volume, Quirke appears worn out, he suffers from a knock on the skull which he received in a previous episode and he has been convalescing for weeks at the home of his brother. The story involves a closed Catholic institution, a kind of religious prison for unmarried pregnant women whose babies are then sold off for adoption to Catholic families in the United States. It starts off with a car crash, a murder, and it ends with the killing of the evil figure behind all of this.
    John Banville - in contrast to Tony Blair and other such figures - is obviously no friend of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Book of Evidence, John Banville

     The story follows, more or less closely, the real-life murder of a young nurse in Dublin by Malcolm Edward MacArthur. The corresponding character in the book is Freddie Montgomery. Unlike MacArthur, Freddie has actually done some work in his life, having a position as a statistician in California for a year or two. But essentially he is like MacArthur. The son of an ancient Irish family, living off the remains of the estate until it is bankrupted, leaving him with no means of support. In desperation he tries stealing a painting from the mansion of a family who had bought his family's paintings. It is a messy, sloppy business. A maid jumps into the backseat of his getaway car, careening down the road. She hits him and he takes a hammer and slams it into her skull two or three times, killing her. Then the book is written as if it were a description of his life, written in prison, explaining all the circumstances, imagining that he is writing this as truth, a confession to be submitted to the court in order that an honest judgement of his case and his life can be made. Many of the details parallel that in the MacArthur case. All very sordid.
    The fact that justice is not equal between the common people and the members of the aristocracy is shown by the real-life treatment given to MacArthur, who was "confined" in the luxurious Shelton Abbey prison where the inhabitants wile away their time pursuing pleasant pastimes, for example golf, woodworking, arts and crafts or pottery. MacArthur was released in 2012 after 30 years of this comfortable life. It must have been a shock for him to reenter a world in which he no longer had a comfortable hereditary income. Similarly, John Banville has written two further books as a sequel to this one, describing the descent of the hero, Freddie Montgomery into a life of degeneration and crime after his release from prison. But reading the reviews of those books makes me think that I've read enough of this story already.
    It was nicely written, in the rambling, "serious" style which caused it to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. But somehow, finishing a book like this with all the characters and events being unpleasant, void of all redemption, is a depressing thing.

Benjamin Black

     As mentioned before, Benjamin Black is the pseudonym of John Banville when he is writing crime stories featuring the character Quirke, a pathologist in a Dublin hospital. At the time I am writing this, having read through three of the Quirke books, I have still not discovered what Mr. Quirke's given name is. On the other hand, before starting at the beginning of this series I had read the last episode, Even the Dead, and there it is revealed who his true father is. Therefore I know that his quirky last name is itself false, or a pseudonym. He was deposited as an orphan in a cruel Catholic institution for destitute boys before being "rescued" by the wealthy and powerful Dublin judge who poses as his adoptive father.
    Quirke is a heavy whisky drinker. He's always thinking about it, feeling guilty and hungover after his prolonged drunken episodes. He tells us he is not addicted to alcohol; it is a substitute for his loneliness and regrets. But then after a period of drying out in a Catholic institution for the correction of moral weaknesses, he recognizes his alcoholism and resolves to become completely abstinent... A difficult resolution in the alcoholic culture of Ireland. And then he smokes continuously, even more so after giving up the drink. Everybody is smoking. We are told of silver cigarette cases being stylishly flourished about the place, and the ceremony of lighting up, flicking open a Zippo, or even a silver or gold lighter. And then we have the different brands of cigarettes. I've forgotten which brand Quirke favors. But the characters are often described by the brands of cigarettes they smoke. Simple country folk - including Inspector Hackett - smoke the rough cigarettes associated with them, while the more refined classes of society have their own brands. I wonder if these really were the brands of cigarettes which were sold in Ireland in those days. I had never heard of them. They were not the brands which dominated the world of advertising back in those days: Marlborough, Camels, Benson & Hedges, and all that. And so the dialogue in these stories is continuously punctuated with hacking coughs.
    I'm enjoying reading these books describing the simple depravities of Ireland in the 1950s. It is a pleasant way to divert the mind from the much deeper depravities which are being imposed on us in the 2020s. I see that John Banville was born in 1945, just a year or two before me. Surely this was the most optimal time here in Europe, and in most of the world, to have been born and to have spent a lifetime. A time of peace and freedom. Maybe it is true that every generation, upon reaching old age, says that the world is falling apart. I hope this will not be the case for the world our children and grandchildren will be inhabiting, but things do not look good at the moment. And so it is pleasant to go back to the world of the 1950s in these books, knowing that it was the beginning of a wonderful time.

Christine Falls:
    This is the first book of the series. An unmarried woman dies after a difficult childbirth. An unpleasant business in the brutally Catholic Ireland of the 1950s. And the woman who had attended her is subsequently beaten to death. We learn that all of this is connected with an association of horrible old men, the Knights of Saint Patrick. They accept "fallen" women into their prison-like laundry where the women are forced to work under the supervision of cruel nuns. The babies are then taken away and transported to the United States where they are given to Irish Catholic families, not to be adopted, but rather to be temporarily brought up before being forced to become priests or nuns.
    We learn much about the background of Quirke. He and his brother Malachy - or Mal - as medical students had spent some time in Boston (Massachusetts), 20 years before our time. They became acquainted with the two daughters of a rich Irish immigrant. That must have been in the 1930s. The good daughter, Sarah, refused to indulge in sex before marriage. Delia, the other, became pregnant, so that Quirke had to marry her, but she died in childbirth and Mal married the lovely Sarah, much to Quirke's regret. Quirke's daughter Phoebe is then brought up by Mal and Sarah as their own, not telling her who her parents really were.
    It is now the present, that is to say some time in the 1950s. Quirke suspects that Mal, who is a member of these Knights of Saint Patrick, had gotten Christine Falls pregnant. Was he then responsible for the murder of the other woman in order to cover it up? And had he even had Quirke himself beaten to within an inch of his life in order to stop him from investigating further? The old Judge Griffin - the father - disliked his son Mal and always favored Quirke. But the judge, despite his age and standing in Irish society, is himself no angel. And Phoebe is told that Quirke, who she now hates, is her real father.
    The last book of the series, Even the Dead, which I read a week or two ago, also deals with the same basic story: the illegal shipping of illegitimate babies from Dublin to Boston. I wondered if all of these Quirke books would continue with just this single theme. That would be boring. But I have gotten started on the second book in the series and it is concerned with a different form of depravity, so I suspect there will be an interesting variety of crimes to read about in the next couple of weeks.

The Silver Swan:
    "Doctor" Kreutz, despite his name, is a mysterious Indian person, expounding Eastern religions and practices while performing erotic massages on middle-aged women, snapping pornographic pictures of them with his camera. A younger woman gets mixed up in this business, keeping things secret from her middle-aged husband. She goes into partnership with Doctor Kreutz's sidekick, Leslie White, a sleazy but elegant man, seemingly irresistible to all women. Their business is "The Silver Swan" beauty parlor. Even Quirke's daughter Phoebe, in all her innocence, is attracted to White.
    The whole thing ends in a series of murders. Was the first death, that of the young woman, a suicide?

Elegy for April:
    This is the beginning of the story that was resolved in April in Spain, thus answering the question posed at the end of the book. We are introduced to the Latimer family. April Latimer is perhaps 25 and she is a junior doctor in the hospital where Quirke is the pathologist. As we saw in that later book, the uncle is a powerful and corrupt politician in 1950s Ireland. The father was a famous fighter in the struggle for Irish independence, but his private life was filled with degrading, horrible excesses. April's brother is a brittle but successful Dublin lawyer.
    Unfortunately poor old Phoebe, Quirke's daughter, is again brought into the whole mess. She has a circle of friends including April. There is also a small, pushy young man who works as a reporter for a Dublin newspaper.
    - Thankfully the "legacy media" is now gradually dying out. We have finally cancelled our subscription to the local newspaper which we have been receiving for the last 40 years or more. -
    Also an actress in the Irish theater; and finally an African medical student from Nigeria. All of the women are fascinated by this exotic member of the circle. We are told of Phoebe's fascination with his dark skin: its texture, its smell. And in an erotic passage we are told of her beautiful union with the student on his narrow bed. The old woman living in the top floor of the derelict house where the actress lives tells us that the student has been a frequent visitor there. And what about April, who, according to the moral values of the Dublin of that time, lives a wild, unconventional life?
    The story starts off with Phoebe wondering where April is. She has not heard from her for the past two weeks. And she gets Quirke into the quest to find April. As a pleasant distraction, Quirke is welcomed into the bed of the actress. I find this difficult to understand. In fact, women seem to throw themselves at Quirke. We can understand this in the case of the healthy young African, but Quirke? He spends half his time staggering about in a drunken stupor. And not only for that half, but for all the time, he is filling the air with his foul cigarette smoke. Do women really find that to be attractive? Does this reflect the desires of most women, or is it only an aberration in the mind of John Banville? Who knows?
    Perhaps his attraction as far as the actress was concerned was at least partially based on the fact that he purchased a very exclusive car in the middle of the story. An Alvis TC 108 Super Graber Coupé. Apparently only three of these hand made cars were ever produced. Am I giving too much away to say that at the end of the story, Quirke's car is totally demolished. Driven off a cliff into the sea, thus leaving the world with only two of these cars. Or is this just a fiction so that, in fact, all three still remain in existence?
    In any case it is clear that the Latimer family has gotten rid of April in one way or another.


A Death in Summer:
    A man is found with his head blasted off, attached to the body with just a few strands of corpuscle. He has a shotgun in his hands. Obviously the killer placed the gun in the hands of the corpse. I can't imagine that a shotgun would be capable of blasting off a person's head. Could it be possible if the gun was filled with heavy, explosive slugs? His name is/was Richard Jewell, or Diamond Dick. Inspector Hackett and Quirke are at the scene of the crime. The wife and sister of the deceased are strangely distanced. We are told that Richard Jewell was a Jew. But he had a Catholic upbringing and considered himself to be a Christian. Nevertheless the other characters think of him as being Jewish. They are not prepared to separate him from his original tribe, or caste. We are told that other characters are also Jewish. Except for Quirke's assistant, David Sinclair, who also belongs to the tribe, they all seem to be evil. Is John Banville an anti-Semite? He is certainly anti-Roman Catholic.
    What is the nature of this evil? They, along with various Christian men, are members of a society called the Friends of Saint Christopher's Orphanage. Poor little boys, 7 or 8 years old, are held prisoner in this institution. It is run by a person named Father Ambrose. An elegant old man. He is essentially a pimp, selecting boys to be abused by these Friends of the Orphanage. Jewell is continuously seeking "fresh meat" to satisfy his tastes. He has even abused his own daughter and his step-sister, who is much younger than him.
    The French wife, whose maiden name was Françoise d'Aubigny, is a manipulative person. She sleeps with Quirke. And also Phoebe is again dragged into things as well. Towards the end when Françoise has escaped to her property on the Côte d'Azure, she tells us that her father was fascinated with German culture. (This is just after World War II.) She angrily spits out the German equivalent of Françoise, namely Franziska. Well, that war is long in the past, and I prefer the name Franziska rather than the manipulative Françoise.

Vengeance:
    This one was a pleasant break from all those Roman Catholic religious orders with their members abusing children in horrible ways. Given all the bitterness of the writing, I wondered if the author had himself suffered such abuse. According to his Wikipedia page, he did go to Catholic schools, but he was living at home. The entry includes the absurd statement: " A reformed criminal, Banville stole a book from Wexford County Library while in his teens." Can we speculate that perhaps that statement might have been put into the Wikipedia by a Catholic priest? As revenge? Vengeance?
    The book begins with an interesting and bizarre scene. A young man who knows nothing about sailing is invited out for a day on the water by an older man. They sail off for hours until they are out of sight of land. Suddenly the older man draws a pistol and tells a story, seemingly threatening the younger man. Then, rather than murdering the other, he points the pistol at his own chest and fires, collapsing on the deck in an expanding puddle of blood. The young man is horrified and instinctively throws the gun away into the ocean. After many hours he is rescued.
    How can he prove that he didn't murder the older man? But it's worse than that. The whole story involves a major family business which is jointly run by two families. A generation or two before, the families were equal partners. But then one of the families began to dominate the business. This was the family of English-Protestant heritage of the older man in the boat. The family of the younger man was of Irish-Catholic heritage. And secretly this younger man had been manipulating the finances, squeezing out the other family. Thus one way or another, it would seem that the younger man would be ruined.
    But it is a complicated story with many more twists and turns. And we are told of the ambivalent feeling of the Irish for their Irish-Anglo-Protestant neighbors. They are despised for their role in past history, and yet they are respected as being better businessmen, more honest, more successful than the Catholics.

  Holy Orders:
    In the middle of the night a body is found floating in the canal. It turns out to be Jimmy Minor, the reporter, the sometime friend of Phoebe. Again a long story where, this time, we encounter the "Tinkers". I think they are now called the "Travelers". An Irish phenomenon, similar but distinct from the Gypsies, or Romani. (The champion heavyweight boxer, Tyson Fury tells us that he is a Traveler.) But in the end everything again comes down to the abuse of small children by Roman Catholic priests.
    Well, this is the end of the Benjamin Black, Quirke books. He has gradually gotten onto my nerves with his constant need for whisky and cigarettes. During the story Quirke begins to experience hallucinations. He seems to be losing his mind. The final scene has him in the office of a specialist, presumably a neurologist, X-raying his brain to see what's wrong with it. While alcohol addles the brain it must also preserve whatever there is which remains. We are not told what the result of the examination has been.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See

     After having immersed myself in all those John Banville books I was at a loss as to what to read next. I tried The Wanderer by Knut Hamsun. That is actually a trilogy of short books. I read through the first story; a man, apparently well-off, rejects the comforts of the city and occupies himself with casual laboring jobs on the farms of southern Norway. He falls in love with middle-aged farmers wives who reject him. Meaninglessness, hopelessness. Starting on the second book of the trilogy before quickly giving up, it was just more of the same. Then I tried A Room with a View, by E.M. Forester. Perhaps it was meant to be amusing. But again, it seemed meaningless. The news, Ukraine, Covid, was just too depressing.
    This book by Lisa See was similarly depressing to match the general mood. As always, she writes about China. I was unclear about the time of the book until near the end where it is said that much of the suffering was due to the Taiping Rebellion, which was in the 1850s. But the story could have equally well been placed hundreds of years before that time. If everything she writes about these things is true then China must have been one of the most distorted and warped societies that has ever existed.
    First of all we have the horrible business of deforming the feet of young girls. As it is described, when the child is about 6 years old, having been allowed to run about and play in the healthy air before that time, the little girl is then confined to the "women's room" in the upstairs part of the house. There the feet are bound tightly, and ever more tightly. The girl cries out in pain, but is forced to walk back and forth in the room, with the binding ever tighter. Soon the bones break, the girl weeps in pain but is forced to walk back and forth again and again. The broken bones are then bound ever more tightly, and the result after a couple of years is either gangrene setting in and the girl dies, or the bones set in a bizarre deformity, rendering the growing girl and the grown woman a virtual cripple. It is then said that men found such deformed, crippled feet to be sexually attractive! How can we understand such sexual depravity which apparently pervaded the whole culture of China? And then the main character continuously tells us how ugly normal, healthy feet are. These are the feet of the women servants. I read quickly through the disgusting chapters where the narrator, Lily, and her contracted friend, Snow Flower, have their feet bound.
    From then on life for the women was confined almost exclusively to the "women's room". Soon they are married off to other families and other women's rooms. Their only value there is measured according to their ability to produce male babies. Female babies are rubbish; a drain on the household; a useless mouth to feed and then a drain on the family finances since a marriage involves large sums of money being transferred from the family of the bride to that of the groom. Then if the husband of the woman dies she is considered to be disposable and is sold off as a servant, or perhaps as a sex-slave to the highest bidder.
    Could it really be that this brutal and disgusting story represents a true description of traditional Chinese society? Lisa See has told us of her qualifications for writing about such subjects. She has visited her distant relatives in China, heard their stories. How depressing. Perhaps we can understand Mao's cultural revolution as a very sensible way to change things for the better.
    Having finished the book and looking for something else I saw that Lisa See had written Flower Net, a kind of detective story which she published in 1997. A story of a network of organized Chinese crime, smuggling things into California. We have the Chinese investigators using their methods and then the American FBI with its methods. The Americans are described as civilized, reasonable, helpful, while the Chinese are also nice people, but they are prepared to exercise brutality. In particular we read about the fact that each neighborhood in China has an overseer who records all the details of the lives of everybody in the neighborhood, down to the last details. On the basis of these records it is then determined what they are allowed to do, where they are allowed to live, whether or not they are to be punished.
    Some time ago I watched the Black Mirror series, showing more or less fanciful possible futures, dystopias. One episode was a humorous story of a young woman in a society dominated by a mobile telephone software similar to "Facebook". People continuously clicking "like" or "dislike" buttons. Having lots of "likes" allowed people to have better places to live, higher income, education, travel, and all that. The woman of the story tried everything to get as many "likes" as possible, yet she dropped further and further down in her "Facebook" score, becoming an outcast, homeless, rejected. And then I saw a report saying that exactly this system is being implemented in modern China! How horrible. A realization of this fictitious dystopia. Could it be that we will face a similar fate? After all, the traditional forms of government are gradually being replaced by the companies which control the virtual world that people live in today. When I walk about the place, most people I see are not looking at the world around them. Instead they are holding their mobile telephones up to their faces while walking. But on the other hand, although it appears to be part of traditional Chinese culture to be continuously evaluated by a neighborhood overseer, that is not the case here. The Stasi of East Germany is a recent memory which is thought of with revulsion. So I hope that we will not soon be living in a world governed by "Facebook" likes and dislikes.

Robert Peel, a Biography, by Douglas Hurd

     I've been finding it difficult to get started reading things, soon giving up, dissatisfied with what was started. The book Entangled Life, by Merlin Sheldrake, seemed interesting. All about fungi, mushrooms, yeast and all that. They are everywhere. In the soil where they are essential for plant growth. Indeed, they create the soil in the first place. And our bodies are full of all sorts of fungi. We would not be able to live without them. It really is a fascinating subject. But the often flippant style of writing put me off. Merlin Sheldrake (a wonderful name) tells us of his experiences with LSD, administered to him in the experimental environment of a hospital. He describes the fungi which infect certain kinds of ants. It changes the behavior of the ants, making them climb up to the top of a plant and then bite into the stem of the plant with a death grip. The fungi then consumes the body of the ant, growing a stalk, or mushroom, which projects from the ant's head. He then speculates for page upon page about the relationship of ergot to humanity. This is a fungi that grows on grains and led to much sickness in medieval Europe. It also causes hallucinations and is the basis of LSD. And then there is mescalin and the "magic mushrooms". Are these fungi taking over the human race in a similar manner to the ant fungi? Such speculation became boring and I turned to something else before getting very far into the book.
    I tried Why We Love Pirates, by Rebecca Simon PhD. She explains in an interesting way who Captain Kidd was and how he was unfairly used to set an example. She tells us how much she enjoyed the movies of the Pirates of the Caribbean with Johnny Depp. And so the book goes on and on about what happened in the Bahamas at the beginning of the 17th century. But surely there is much more to piracy than just that. We have the modern day pirates capturing gigantic ships off East Africa. Perhaps they are not lovable, but their prizes are impressive. Then the pirates in Indonesia, around the Maluku Islands, or those in the Strait of Malacca. And of course there have been pirates throughout history. Think of the "Shores of Tripoli" of the 19th century which the Marines sing about, or even the pirates of Ancient Rome. It is a huge subject, yet the book was nothing more than a romantic celebration in the style of Johnny Depp. I quickly gave up.
    And so I thought I would try a few biographies. Real stories about real people. I started with this one about Sir Robert Peel, the British Prime Minister of the 1840s. The author, who writes elegantly and with deep knowledge of his subject, was the Home Secretary under Margaret Thatcher. Occasionally in the text he compares one situation or another which confronted Peel with something or other to do with Thatcher, always in her favor, which was an irritation. But apart from that it was a very enjoyable read. It was pleasant to fill the mind with the world of the early 19th century. Of course there was much wrong with the England of those days, and Peel was not always prepared to do the right thing. But at least he did not require the whole population to lock themselves in their houses for weeks on end, wear masks and be injected with genetically engineered substances. And so it was very pleasant to live for a few days in a different time of long ago while reading this book.
    In the 1830s and 40s people remembered the horrors of the French Revolution. Thus there was very much of a conservative feeling. Society should only be changed slowly, gradually. The interests of rich landowners and the wealthy industrialists were respected.
    What was the normal state of affairs in those days? For example, Catholics were not allowed to sit in parliament. Thus whereas the vast majority of Irish were Catholic, they were denied representation. In fact at the beginning of his career, Peel was the commissioner for Ireland, representing the conservative interests of the Protestant - English - minority. Much of the book is concerned with Ireland. And then there was the corrupt electoral system. Voting was open, in front of everyone. Obviously a tenant farmer did not cast a vote opposing that of his local squire. And of course only men who owned a certain amount of property and income could vote. Some rural constituencies only had a few small villages while major cities of the industrial revolution such as Manchester were hardly represented at all. And then there were the Corn Laws, first brought in to finance the war against the French. The import of grains was taxed on a variable basis, thus ensuring that the local squires and farmers had a guaranteed high price for their crops. The Corn Law was brought in again after Napoleon was defeated to satisfy the farmer's lobby. Peel was at first a staunch supporter of all of these things, but later, as Prime Minister, he had them all changed.
    We read much of the complicated politics of those times. One advantage of the chaotic and unfair electoral system was that each member of parliament was an individual, only loosely tied to a party. There was nothing of the rigid party discipline of these days. If Boris Johnson were to be substituted for Robert Peel in the 1840s, his lockdowns, mask, and genetic injection proposals would have been greeted with derision and rebellion. Parliamentarians were free to think for themselves and to vote as they pleased.
    Robert Peel was the son of a wealthy textile manufacturer. We read about his childhood, schooling, university. He went to Harrow where, we are told, education consisted almost exclusively of the learning of Latin. The goal was to be able to speak and to read and write Latin as fluently as his native English. The pupils, even in private, were to speak Latin. Advanced pupils learned Ancient Greek and Hebrew. Science and mathematics was unheard of. He was a contemporary of Lord Byron at Harrow who recalled that "while I (Byron) was always in scrapes, he (Peel) never". Studying at Oxford he discovered that there was more to the world than just Latin. Oxford actually had science. And so Peel decided to study both the Classics and Mathematics. He became the first person ever to have obtained a double first in these two disciplines.
    Without being an aristocrat he had inherited great wealth. When reading in the book of the sums of money involved in one thing and another, these sums are sometimes compared with the modern-day equivalents which have been diminished by inflation. There is an official inflation calculator of the Bank of England. Clicking in there, we see that one English pound of 1840 is calculated to have the same value as £108.40 today. That is, English money is less than one hundredth the value it used to have. But then, when describing the huge palace-like houses Peel lived in in London, with his collection of paintings and everything else, we are confronted with a few seeming contradictions. For example we are told that he built himself a huge mansion, or palace, on a beautiful site with extensive gardens overlooking the river, and it cost him £14,000. Multiplying that by the Bank of England's supposed rate of inflation, we obtain something like one and a half million pounds. Yet that would be barely sufficient to buy a modestly sized apartment with two or three bedrooms in some high-rise building in today's London!
    Despite his wealth, as Prime Minister Peel was concerned about the plight of the poor. During the Irish potato famine he tried to import as much corn (maize) from the United States into Ireland as possible. By reducing import duties on food and most other things, life became more affordable and the English economy became more competitive. In a time of loose morals he was devoted to his wife and his family. At the age of 62, on a ride in London, he was thrown from his horse. His injuries were such that he died a few days later. Crowds of people gathered before his house to morn the passing of a politician loved by the people.

Samuel Pepys, The Unequaled Self, by Claire Tomalin

     Years ago the Folio Society put out a three volume set of the Diary of Samuel Pepys which I have here on my shelves. It is not the complete diary. According to the Introduction, about 2/3 had been left out, which means that the whole thing must take up about 9 volumes and over 10,000 closely written pages. Nevertheless this edition has at least part of what Pepys wrote for each of the days in the 10 years he kept the diary. It is a beautifully produced set with many fine illustrations. But of course I did not read every page. I suppose I soon gave up, browsing here and there, admiring the pictures. Then a few years later I got another book from the Folio Society called "The Illustrated Pepys: Extracts from the Diary". Very interesting and enjoyable, and something I could read all the way through. Over the years different publishers have extracted just a sufficient number of passages to make a normal-sized book. The 19th century extracts avoided everything scandalous whereas more recent editions include all the juicy bits in addition to the set pieces: the Fire of London and the Great Plague.
    It is interesting to read what Pepys writes on all sorts of themes. His state of health, music, his personal friendship with many of the leading figures of the London of the 1660s, including the King, Charles II. He was also a member of the Royal Society in those days when it was a club for pleasant discussions of all the phenomena which interested the members. So now I have read another book about Pepys. This one is more concerned with the juicy bits, following the fashion of today.
    We have Pepys mixture of Latin and French words for obscuring his erotic fumblings. Claire Tomalin suspects that he used these as a way of increasing the pleasure of his memories while writing the diary. But she tells us that his encounters were mainly confined to erotic fondling; perhaps only the poor Mrs. Bagwell was subjected to a long-term and full sexual exploitation. Her husband, Mr. Bagwell, a carpenter at the naval yards, was offering his wife as a kind of prostitute in exchange for favors. And then we are told that at one point in the diary Pepys has intercourse with his wife and finds that she is enjoying it. He thinks that this is strange, unnatural, and he meditates on it. Women are only there for the pleasure of men.
    The author, who certainly does not condemn her subject, tells us that the diary is perhaps the best description in literature of the married state. Really? Am I just being boring, old-fashioned, conservative? I find the way Pepys was continually cheating other people, always lying through his teeth, to be very distasteful. For example he obtained one of his positions by making a deal with somebody else: Thomas Povey. It was agreed that the usual bribery payments which came with the office would be split equally between them. But although Pepys received bribes of many thousands of pounds, he gave Povey nothing at all and replied to all inquiries with letters of high indignation. Well, Pepys became a wealthy and famous man. In contrast we mathematicians spend our time on obscure puzzles which interest almost nobody. Cheating, lying in the style of Pepys leads nowhere, and thus our lives remain ordinary and boring.
    The diary ends with his pursuit of Deborah "Deb" Willet. Earlier editors and biographers assumed that Deb had disappeared into the mists of history, free of Peyps's further gropings. But in an Afterword we learn that in 2006 a historian discovered documents related to Deb's further life. She married Jeremiah Wells, a theologian, and we learn that Pepys obtained a position for Wells as a ship's chaplain. Deb had two daughters, but then she died only a few years later. Jeremiah Wells died a year and a half after that. All of this is in the time after the diary so that we have no definite details, mere speculation. Was Deb treated similarly to Mrs. Bagwell, with Wells playing the role of a pimp? Were perhaps one or another of the daughters Pepys's children? Did Pepys, with all his money, see that the two daughters were supported after both Deb and Jeremiah died?
    At the beginning of the book we are told what it was like to enter a house in London in the 17th century. The smells, the dirt, the fact that people are unwashed. And then they are continually getting sick and dying. We learn the details of the operation to remove the stone in Pepys's bladder when he was a young man. And then after his painful death at 70 he was dissected by his associates of the Royal Society and it was found that there were stones in his right kidney, even adhering it to the back wall of the abdominal cavity. His stomach and intestines were totally inflamed. But his heart and right kidney were still sound. And then much earlier, after a holiday trip to France, his wife Elizabeth became ill and died within three weeks. She was only about 40 years old. Pepys's siblings, his relatives, all seemed to die quickly. At least his father enjoyed a longer life.
    What were they all dying of? Was it just the dirt, the unsanitary water, unclean food, the immoral way of life? These days most people live well beyond 70. I am approaching 75, running a few miles a couple of days each week, taking no medicines, avoiding doctors, particularly since they started injecting people with these gene therapy shots. What advantages do we really have over those people of 350 years ago? For example the kings and queens of that time rarely made it much past 50, assuming that they were not assassinated before then. But the present Queen Elizabeth, her husband and her mother all live up to and beyond 100.

Hidden: Betrayed exploited and forgotten, by Kathy Glass

     When starting to write my thoughts here, discovering the homepage of the author, I was astonished to find that she has already published something like 36 books. Kathy Glass is a foster mother. A foster family takes children who the social services deem to be in troubling circumstances and gives them a temporary home until either things clear up, or real adoptive parents are found. She must have had at least 36 foster children. It seems that each of her books describes one of them. This one is a 10 year old boy named Tayo. He is clearly an African, but upon arrival he tells the author that he is white. The story is that his mother came from Southeast Asia; was it Thailand? She was working as a lap-dancer in Nigeria where she slept with the father of Tayo. He was a highly educated and successful businessman, and without marrying her he agreed to support her while having his son Tayo living in his large house in Lagos where he attended the finest schools in the country. But when Tayo was only 5 or 6 the mother kidnapped him and took him on an odyssey, finally ending in London where she worked as an occasional prostitute. She was a drug addict. She hated Africa - and almost everything else - and told Tayo that he was white, not black. Tayo had to organize her life for her, dodging the fists of drunken, drugged men, occasionally staying with other people, attending various schools temporarily, even being forced to work in a sweatshop in London on a sewing machine for 12 or more hours a day.
    When Tayo was brought to stay with Kathy Glass she was astonished to find that he spoke politely with a very refined British accent. He gradually grew used to life with Kathy, doing well at school. The mother could only be contacted through a mobile phone number which was almost always turned off. She gave no address. Contacts were violent displays of shouting and bad language. While the mother needed Tayo to help her, it was clear that he needed a stable family, away from the mother.
    He had vague memories of an ideal former life in Nigeria. He wanted to return to Nigeria to his dad. This became an obsession. He expected people to find his dad and bring him home. But the mother refused to give any information, and Tayo couldn't remember. What was the real name of his father? Where had he lived in Nigeria? Tayo became sullen, withdrawn. All he could think about was returning to his father in Nigeria.
    Then suddenly he was found. The father had employed private detectives, searching everywhere: Thailand, Europe, looking for Tayo, year after year for five years. He came to England, an elegantly dressed gentleman, meeting Kathy and learning about the situation of his son. There was a legal process for Tayo's custody, opposed at first by the mother who appeared in court in a drunken state, shouting and swearing. And so custody was granted and Tayo returned to Nigeria, the land of his dreams. A beautifully written, moving book.

Christianity as Mystical Fact and the Mysteries of Antiquity, by Rudolf Steiner

     Listening to a recent podcast, the speaker described how after living for years in the Far East he had come back to Christianity. He described the thoughts of the ancient Greek philosophers, their assertion that the true Revelation was in everybody, only needing to be awakened, and it was of a nature beyond words, incapable of being described. This mystical fact is the basis of Christianity. He was asked where one might read further into such things and he recommended the writings of Rudolf Steiner.
    The word Mystery fills this book, and we wonder what it is. What is a Mystical Fact? How is it possible to write a book describing something which is beyond description? A few chapter headings: The Mysteries and their Wisdom; The Greek Sages Before Plato in the Light of the Wisdom of the Mysteries; Plato as Mystic; The Mystery Wisdom of Egypt; The Lazarus Miracle; Christianity and Heathen Wisdom. Passages in the Bible, in Plato's Symposium, and in other ancient writings are examined and interpreted in terms of secret meanings. All of this was too mysterious for me.
    Perhaps much of this speculation is motivated by the seemingly brutal fact that each of us will, individually, in reality, in some very specific way, time and place, die. There is no vaccination against this. Covering your face with a mask and hiding at home will not make it go away. Is this something to become nervous about, frightened? To have "butterflies in the stomach" as if some difficult public performance must be prepared for and for which we are ill prepared. By its very nature Death is a mystery. People who have had near-death experiences and people who have accompanied many deaths in hospices tell us that death can be a wonderful experience if we do not fight it. Otherwise it can be dreadful.
    Surely the best thing is to live in the world of our experience as it is. It is often thought that modern physics is a mystery, only to be understood in terms of esoteric thought. I prefer to let the mind and the spirit seek a more rational revelation.

Sagittarius Rising, by Cecil Lewis

     For years I received books from the Folio Society, and they fill the bookshelves here. So why not reread some of them? This was one of my favorites. Beautiful, lyrical writing. It is one of those many books in the genre of World War One writings. I was surprised that it is not considered to be such a classic as for example Robert Graves' Goodbye to All That, or the books and poetry of Siegfried Sassoon. But on second thoughts it is not surprising. Unlike me, it seems that most of the people who read these books are middle-aged women. A book about the Great War should dwell on the horror, the futility, the suffering. Yet in 1916, the year Cecil Lewis joined the Royal Flying Corps as a 17 year old boy, middle-aged women were out on the streets of London giving young men and boys white feathers as a sign of their cowardice for not being in uniform.
    Cecil Lewis dreamed of flying and he couldn't wait to enlist in order to be able to ascend into the sky and fly airplanes. He describes the machines he flew. Rereading the book this time I was continually looking things up in the internet, finding pictures of airplanes, reading long articles about their characteristics, their history. He tells us that he spent hundreds of hours in a Morane Parasol. We are told that it was a dangerous machine. Unstable, difficult to fly. It was not a "scout" for engaging in dogfights; a spin would be fatal. Rather he flew along the lines, photographing the trenches, ranging the canons, escaping enemy aircraft. Later he flew missions on an SE5 with the famous 56 Squadron, on one occasion diving vertically from 15,000 feet, or whatever it was, guns blazing, directly into the "Richthofen Circus". But he tells us that the SE5 was at a disadvantage in aerial combat in comparison with a Spad or a Sopworth Camel, or indeed a Fokker Triplane.
    The fact that he survived and lived on to be 98 years old in the year 1997 was hardly to be expected. His motto was Safety Last. For him the war in the air was of a different character to that on the ground. Combat was as with the knights of old. A test of skill and courage, circling one another in complicated three dimensional aerobatics. The victor flew away while the vanquished fell in a clean, fiery death, more honorable than the uncountable, meaningless deaths in the mud of the trenches below.
    After the war Cecil Lewis was one of the five original founders of the BBC. But this is no longer the theme of the book. He was in China for a year or two in 1920-21, with the purpose of establishing an air service between Peking and Shanghai using Vickers Vimy Commercial aircraft. He mission was to train a group of young Chinese to be pilots, but the problems were insurmountable: language, culture, misconceptions. It all came to nothing. He soon became dissatisfied with the British expat culture in Peking and bought his own house. There are vague, dreamy passages of romantic evenings. It is only when we read through his Wikipedia page that we see that he married Evdekia Dmitrievna Horvath, the daughter of a Russian general, in Peking, in 1921. And there we find other details of his and her lives.

Howard Hughes: His Life & Madness, by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele

     In the early days of oil drilling, around 1900, the drills used were apparently just large, scaled up versions of the kind of drills we have for boring through wood or cement. Just scraping away at the bottom of the drill hole. This works fine in soil or I suppose in soft rocks, but not very well in hard rock. Howard Hughes' father (Howard Sr.) was in Texas during the rush for oil back then. He got to know someone who had an idea for making more efficient drill bits for drilling through rock. There was a wooden model, but not enough funds to construct a working model. Thus Hughes Sr. bought the rights for the idea, took out patents, established the Hughes Tool Co. to manufacture these improved drill bits, became rich, and the company gushed with money as the deeper wells drilled through layers of rock gushed with oil. But Hughes Sr. and his wife, the mother of Howard, did not live long enjoying their riches. They died when their son was only 20 years old. The flow of money continued, but into his hands.
    Howard quit school and quit Texas since it contained people trying to tell him what to do. He moved to California, started flying airplanes, decided to make a couple of movies in Hollywood with all those beautiful actresses. In particular the epic Hell's Angels. Getting bored with that, he turned to the idea of having people build a high speed airplane for himself, which became the H-1 racer. He flew it in 1935 at the speed of 352 m.p.h., claiming a speed record. However already in 1931 the Schneider Trophy machine, the Supermarine S.6B, flown by Flight Lieutenant George Stainforth, had achieved a speed of 407 m.p.h. The Supermarine was a float plane, whose aerodynamics were impeded by the large floats it had to carry. One wonders why Hughes was so slow! His problem seems to have been that his motor was a radial Pratt & Whitney producing only 700 h.p. In contrast, the Schneider Trophy machine had a Rolls-Royce V12 engine rated at 2,350 h.p. Nevertheless Hughes seems to have been a master of publicity, flying his H-1 from California to New York to great public acclaim. He then bought a Lockheed 14 Super Electra airplane in 1938 and, together with a four man crew, flew around the Northern Hemisphere at relatively high latitudes, landing quickly to refuel and immediately take off, completing the circuit in just under 8 days. He must have paid lots of money to have enabled all of this coordination. Upon arrival back in New York he was given an unprecedented reception. The ticker-tape parade even exceeded that given to Charles Lindbergh! I find this difficult to imagine. He spent all of World War II trying to have an airplane built and sold to the War Office, the Hughes XF-11. His constant interfering led to it only being finished after the war was over. For its maiden flight, Hughes insisted that he pilot it himself. Ignoring all sensible procedures, he crashed it into a house in Beverly Hills, injuring only himself. Then of course there was the Hughes H-4 Hercules, or Spruce Goose business. Beyond this, he again produced some Hollywood movies in the 1950s. Then he bought into Las Vegas in a big way, owning various hotels and casinos. And yet by this time he had become a mad recluse. The book describes the strange, even disgusting details of his insanity. I was only half way through the book. But frankly I had lost interest in his various projects, and so I gave up.
    In his madness Hughes became obsessed with the idea of germs. But in recent times facts about the human microbiome have become well known. We are covered with bacteria, archaea, fungi, viruses, and whatnot, huge numbers of all kinds of microorganisms both inside and outside our bodies. It is said that there are more than 10 times as many of these organisms on and within each of us than the total number of our own human cells. Without this microbiome we would quickly die. Each of us is a fantastic world, a jungle of teaming life. But if we live a distorted life, bringing all of these organisms out of balance, we become sick.
    Now it is undoubtedly also true that there are particular species of microorganisms which, individually, can make us sick. A month or two ago we had a visitor who had taken all of these genetic injections, plus the "boosters", which have been injected into people in the last year. A day after his visit he emailed to say that he had tested "positive" - a not unexpected result given the disruptions to the body such injections must cause. Then 2 or 3 days later I developed a fever, making me feel sufficiently sick to stay in bed for a day or two. It was the first time I had felt sick for many years. A test was also "positive". Then 10 days later another test was "negative". This correlation between an actual sickness, contact with a "positive" person, and the "test", whatever it was, surprised me. It is always said that correlation is not necessarily causation. Nevertheless, for me this does prove that "Covid", while being nothing more than a common cold, is in fact an example of a particular organism which does cause a specific sickness.
    But this does not justify the obsession with germs which consumed Howard Hughes, and indeed, which has led to the world-wide hysteria which we have seen in the last two years. Howard Hughes died a crippled, wasted wreck at 70 years of age, killed by his worries about germs. Who knows what the fate of the vast number of people who have submitted themselves to these multiple genetic injections will turn out to be?

Sinatra: Behind the Legend, by J. Randy Taraborrelli

     Another biography. In contrast to Howard Hughes, Frank Sinatra did not simply inherit great wealth and he did not shut himself away from the world in a state of cowardly fear and anxiety. He was the antithesis of everything that was bad about Hughes. Sinatra was a musician, a singer of songs, and we expect a biography of Frank Sinatra to tell us about the overwhelming adulation he received, the special, unique properties of his voice. A voice which is immediately recognizable.
    But frankly I don't enjoy listening to Sinatra's recordings. His style was something halfway between talking and singing. And the speaking voice in his songs has an aggressive quality. Take it or leave it he seems to be saying. Yet listening to his early recordings in the 1940s we hear something entirely different. He was really singing in those days. Young girls - they were called bobby soxers - crowded in to his concerts and screamed the whole time. I remember going to an Elvis Presley movie in the 1950s as a young boy, finding the theater filled with girls, and during the whole time they were screaming, reaching a crescendo each time Elvis actually appeared on screen. This was only a movie! I can hardly imagine what a live concert must have been like. Absolutely deafening. The same thing happened with the Beatles in the 1960s. But it all started off with Sinatra in the 40s. "Sinatramania", "Swoonatra". Sinatra himself described it:

"Perfectly simple: It was the war years and there was a great loneliness, and I was the boy in every corner drugstore, the boy who'd gone off drafted to the war. That's all."

He wasn't drafted to the war. A perforated eardrum? It is said that internal army files state that he was " not acceptable material from a psychiatric viewpoint". The claim that he had bribed his draft board was found by the FBI to be without merit.
    Of course the book concentrates on his private life. The wives, the mafia, his explosive temper. We are told that he could "have" any woman he wanted. And he certainly did take them. After all, they were throwing themselves at him. Officially, he had just three children, all with his first wife, Nancy. One woman claimed to be his child and attempted to have it proved in a court of law, but the family refused to allow DNA testing. From what we read, it can easily be imagined that there are tens, if not hundreds of further such children.
    Ava Gardner was the great love of his life. She had as much of a temper as Sinatra. And she was unique in that she was not throwing herself at him. On the contrary, we read of Sinatra following her, subserviently fulfilling her wishes on a movie set. She became pregnant. Sinatra was overjoyed, but she went to London to have an abortion. (She had also secretly had an abortion of an earlier pregnancy with Sinatra.) This was too much, leading to a stormy divorce. We read of Sinatra back in Hollywood, nursing his feelings. And then Marilyn Monroe was recovering from her divorce from Joe DiMaggio. She joined Sinatra in his house for a time, both sharing their sorrows. We are told that she preferred being without clothes at home, often surprising visitors by appearing naked. And so they both soon found comfort in one another.
    The marriage to Mia Farrow, a woman who was younger than Sinatra's daughter Nancy, ended quickly. Sinatra at first specified that Mia Farrow would not be allowed to make any movies. But she pleaded with him and was eventually allowed to start filming Rosemary's Baby, which was shot in Europe. Sinatra then wanted to make a film in which she would star alongside him. He insisted that she be back in time to start with his own movie. But halfway into the production, the director of Rosemary's Baby suddenly died in his sleep. This caused delays, angry telephone calls between Sinatra and Farrow. He insisted that she just walk out of the filming, leaving them to carry on without her despite the fact that she was playing the staring role. She refused. And so Sinatra refused to have anything more to do with her. The last wife, Barbara, was submissive, putting up with him until the end. His "real" family, Nancy Sr. and the three children, hated Barbara.
    And then there was the mafia business. Sinatra was good friends with Sam Giancana, often meeting with him, dining, having drinks together. Also Johnny Roselli. He told the FBI and the Las Vegas gambling commission that they were just the friends he knew because they owned the nightclubs where he sang. And then we are told of Sinatra's politics, his close connections to the Kennedys. How he shut himself up for days after JFK's assassination, full of grief. And yet Giancana and Roselli are thought to have been intimately tied to the contract to kill Kennedy.
    Sinatra was often together with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., the "Rat Pack". We read about their drinking. Sinatra regularly consumed at least a bottle of whiskey every day. And then he was continuously smoking. Not good for health. And so, as in these biographies, we move on to his death at the surprisingly old age of 82.

Prague Nights, by Benjamin Black

     Having read the last two biographies of all these real-life goings on, this book by Benjamin Black comes across as tame and boring. The story takes place around Christmas in the year 1599. A young man arrives in Prague and soon gets caught up in the intrigues of the court of the Emperor, Rudolf II, who is depicted as being an absurdly fat fool. There are two high officials, or should we say viziers, plotting against one another. There is magic, alchemy, torrid eroticism. And murder. The young man is charged with the task of discovering who done it.
    The Benjamin Black stories of 1950s Dublin were better.

Napoleon: The Man Behind the Myth, by Adam Zamoyski

     The island of Corsica was ruled by Italians, but then some time before the birth of Napoleon it was taken over by the French. Unlike France, Corsica was not a feudal society. On the contrary. Through generations of elaborate inheritance, the land was divided up into small parcels, even the houses themselves were divided up. Which rooms belonged to which members of a family. Even the access to a staircase within a house was governed by elaborate legal arrangements. Violations of these rules of property were met with violence, vendettas. And thus the whole idea of the French Revolution, that the peasants should be allowed to have property, had nothing at all to do with Corsica. On the other hand, the Bonaparte family was one of the leading families of the island. It is said that Napoleon's mother was very beautiful, and that perhaps Napoleon was in fact the child of the French military governor of Corsica. In any case, as a child he spoke Corsican and Italian. French was for him a foreign language. Even as Emperor he was unable to speak it correctly. His writings were nearly unreadable and were full of grammatical errors. I sympathize with him! And at the beginning of the French Revolution, Napoleon was fighting for Corsican independence from France, despite being an officer on leave from the French army.
    The author relied on original documents: letters, journals; ignoring the vast literature, the myths, which have accumulated about Napoleon. It is a long but very interesting book, clearing up many misconceptions I had had.
    For example I had thought that in Revolutionary France, as in Cambodia, the terror just went on and on until the country was finally defeated from outside. But this was not the case. The Reign of Terror ended when Robespierre was finally executed in 1794. And so things quickly went back to normal. The fashionable life of Paris returned. Many even openly longed for a restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. They had seen where democracy - the rule by the mob - had led, and the emergence of Napoleon as a benign dictator was universally welcomed.
    Napoleon was very much a family man, devoted to his wives and mistresses, and they all (apart from Josephine who, at least initially, despised him and had other men when he was away on his campaigns) seemed to be completely in love with him. Especially his "real" wife, the princess Marie Louise of Austria.
    The idea of becoming an "emperor" was forced on him by others who were afraid of the chaos and renewed terror which might come about when he died. They longed for the stability of a new, more benevolent monarchy. Napoleon found the coronation ceremony to be ridiculous and embarrassing. However later he did succumb to illusions of grandeur.
    Even after his disastrous defeat in Russia, the rest of the European countries offered peace, with France given its "natural" boundaries. In particular with the Rhine river being its eastern border. This is much more than the present present extent of France, or indeed that of the France before the revolution. Yet Napoleon was never able to accept treaties with other countries. As soon as a deal was offered he insisted on more, and ever more, unable to see things from the perspective of the others.
    With the brief return of the Bourbon monarchy and Napoleon's exile to Elbe, the people experienced the cruel retribution of the old order, and so Napoleon's return was met with relief and jubilation. And again a peace was offered by the other countries, yet it was not enough. Against the wishes of all his advisors he marched to his doom at Waterloo.
    I had thought that at least on Saint Helena he might have had a pleasant time enjoying nature, writing his memoirs. At first this might have been the case, but England was obsessed with a fear that he might somehow escape, and so a very strict regime was installed. Two British warships continually sailed around the island, one clockwise and the other anticlockwise, hoping to intercept any attempts to rescue him. He was put into an old barn up on the mountain, far away from the town. The rain leaked in, along with swarms of flies and mosquitoes. There were hundreds of soldiers stationed there, observing him continuously, cutting off any contacts. The food was horrible. He was denied medical care. Shortly before he died, the British military governor of the island sent a naval medic who, hardly looking at the sick Napoleon lying in his bed, reported that he was just pretending. Well, we might sympathize with his plight, but what about the plight of all those people who suffered so needlessly on his completely unnecessary Russian campaign?

Romeo and Juliet are Sandro Botticelli and Simonetta Vespucci, by Stephane Baillon

     I'm in the middle of reading a biography of Leonardo da Vinci, but then I spotted this one. It's a very short book, costing hardly anything on Amazon, I think originally written in French. I first clicked on the German version, but there were numbers of grammatical and logical mistakes in the text. Obviously just translated by some sort of computer software. Therefore I clicked on the English version which, at least, made more formal sense. Botticelli was a few years older than Leonardo. They were both apprentices in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio.
    When she was 16 years old, Simonetta Vespucci was brought from Genoa to Florence to marry Marco Vespucci. Unlike Botticelli, both Simonetta and Marco were members of the Italian aristocracy. Upon her arrival, everyone was struck by Simonetta's beauty, particularly so Sandro. The story is that her husband, Marco, had many other women and he didn't really care for Simonetta, while Sandro became more and more in love with Simonetta, and she with him. She served as a model for many of his paintings, including the naked Venus. Yet if they were to become truly intimate, the savage laws of those days would have condemned Sandro to have been burned at the stake.
    According to the story of the book, Julian Medici (presumably Giovanni) was the evil brother of the ruler of Florence, and he lusted after Simonetta. After she told him that she had posed naked for Sandro, he, in an hysterical fit, stabbed her. This contradicts the Wikipedia version of the death of Simonetta. But who knows? The Wikipedia version of Global Warming, and also that of Covid, both contradict reality, thus weakening our trust of the Wikipedia as a source of information. Anyway, according to the book, Sandro goes on to paint various pictures with allegories of the murder and the guilt of Julian. I really can't see many parallels in this with the story of Romeo and Juliet. At least Sandro was, indeed, buried at the feet of Simonetta (if we are to believe his article in the Wikipedia).
    The book is filled with many illustrations of the paintings of those days, in particular those of Botticelli. The Kindle, with its black and white display, is not well adopted for displaying illustrations. So I ended up reading the book in the Amazon Cloud Reader. There are some glaring mistakes. For example, having made it through much of Leonardo's biography, I certainly know that Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine is a picture of Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Ludovico Sforza. This book absurdly says that it is a portrait of Isabella d'Este, the rich and powerful patron of the arts. But the reality is that she was fat, the opposite of Cecilia, and she commissioned various artists to paint her portrait, rejecting one after the other since they painted true images of her obesity. Leonardo did make a drawing in profile, the traditional method of making kings and queens appear less fat than they were, vaguely promising a painting. But of course nothing came of it.

Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson

     More than anyone else, Leonardo da Vinci was the true "renaissance man". Of course he was the painter who painted the Mona Lisa, the most famous picture in the world. He also studied anatomy, making many new discoveries. For example it was only 50 years ago that people realized that his explanation of the function of the aortic valve of the heart is correct, and the theory which had been believed up to that point was false. He was fascinated with geometry and spent vast amounts of time on the problem of "squaring the circle". The starting point was Hippocrates theorem about lunes. I had never heard of it. It is an interesting geometric relation showing that the area of a particular lune is equal that of a certain triangle. This is a tantalizing idea which seems to open a path to the construction of the squaring of the circle. But of course Leonardo had only a rudimentary idea of algebra, and even if he had been a master of that subject, he would not have known that the number pi is transcendental - a fact which was only proved in 1882, almost 400 years after Leonardo - and thus pi is not constructable. Leonardo was a court musician who entertained the aristocracy of Florence and Milan with his virtuosity on the lute. He was an elegantly dressed, debonair conversationalist, captivating people with his stories, his jokes. A vegetarian who abhorred the suffering of animals, he was a military engineer, inventing devices for the wars of renaissance Italy. An architect. He was especially valued for his organizing of pageants, plays, displays of fireworks; painting the scenery, constructing machines for elaborate stage displays. He was the intimate friend of the renaissance rulers of Florence and Milan, and in his later life especially Francis I, the King of France. A country manor house was provided for Leonardo just a few hundred meters from the palace of Amboise, connected by an underground tunnel so that the King could visit Leonardo daily without being observed.
    The book discusses in detail each of his paintings which have come down to us. Again, the Kindle is not helpful when displaying illustrations, and so I looked up each of the pictures in the internet where there are images which can be zoomed onto at high resolution. For example look at The Baptism of Christ, which was mainly painted by Leonardo's master, Verrocchio, when Leonardo was perhaps 21 or 22 years old. Leonardo painted the left-hand angel (in the bottom left of the picture), and he also painted Christ's legs. But contrast Leonardo's angel with that of Verrocchio. What a world of difference! It is full of life, while Verrocchio's angel is flat, lifeless. It is said that when Verrocchio saw this, he declared that he had met his master, and he would never paint anything more in his life. Perhaps this is an unfair comparison. Leonardo was trying to paint in a lifelike way, showing the inner thoughts, the emotions of the figures. In comparison, the pictures of Botticelli or Michelangelo are flat, statuesque. They depict a dreamlike, other world. It is a totally different form of art, and thus there can be no fair comparison.
    And of course with Michelangelo, everything is filled with muscular he-man nudes. Contrast Michelangelo's Holy Family with Saint John, with  Leonardo's Virgin and Child with Saint Anne. It does seem to me that in Leonardo's picture, the Virgin's right shoulder has become uncomfortably large, but Michelangelo fills the background to his similar work with a dense collection of male nudes, displaying their genitalia, curiously devoid of pubic hair.
    And then there is the Salvator Mundi. The book explains the history of this painting and the reasons that it must be an authentic work of Leonardo. It has been subjected to much rough handling and coarse restorations in the 500 years between then and now. As it has come down to us, the figure seems to be suffering from some debilitating disease of the eyes. And I find it difficult to understand how the hair is so straight, going down to the shoulders where it then becomes full of curls. As with many students back in the 1970s, I also let my hair grow long, not in an effort to emulate the hippies, but rather owing to the fact that I couldn't be bothered to go to the trouble of having it cut. The example of my hair, and that of many others, showed that even hair which does not become curly at the ends tends to grow outwards, especially at the sides of the head. On the other hand, girls with straight hair who then apply curlers to the ends may indeed achieve a similar effect. Well, Ok. It is a work of art, depicting an otherworldly figure. We imagine the head and the curls of the figure ascending into the heavens as with a rocket, with the curls representing the rocket's flaming exhaust. Of course the author of the book did not follow this fantasy of mine. But he did comment on the fact that the glass ball which the figure is holding does not display the interesting optical distortions which a real glass ball would produce. This is strange, since Leonardo devoted so much time to the study of optics.
    As for The Last Supper, deterioration has blurred the details. This is owing to the fact that Leonardo rejected the technique of fresco, preferring to paint on the wall with oil and tempera, enabling him to avoid the flatness of a fresco painting. But it was not a technique which would last. Recognizing this, along with many other problems, he gave up on his commission to paint The Battle of Anghiari. Nevertheless we can see what The Last Supper looked like by looking at the copies painted by his students. For example that of Giampietrino. The figures certainly are interesting, especially the female-like Judas. (However what is left of Leonardo's original gives Judas a more masculine face than that in the copy.) But the food does not appear to be very appetizing. A few brownish bread rolls, and then various pink blobs, whatever they are, and perhaps a lemon, all plopped randomly onto the table. Aside from the rosé wine and some brownish thing on some of the plates, that is all there is. The painting was in a monastery, so I suppose it was a condition of the contract for the painting not to depict food which might arouse the appetites of the monks to a finer fare than that to which they were accustomed.
    It is said that Leonardo was not particularly religious, preferring to believe that which he could actually see of the world. And yet apart from a few calm paintings of prominent women, his art was religious. One explanation of this is given by the previous book which I had just read. But in this book of Walter Isaacson, the incident is downplayed: It seems that in Florence there was an anonymous mailbox where anybody could insert a note, accusing somebody else of some crime or another. By this method, Leonardo was accused of sodomy, a crime which carried the penalty of burning at the stake. The present book says that friends in high places got him off. The previous book says that Botticelli got him of in a deal with the Medicis. In any case, perhaps Leonardo, from then on, decided to adopt a very cautious attitude to the church, avoiding anything which might be thought to be provocative. Thus he took no part in the homo-erotic art which was popular in those days.
    And then finally it seems that the author has recently written a biography of Steven Jobs. At a number of places in the text he - indirectly - compares Jobs to Leonardo. This seems to me to be absurd. Why ruin a story of the life of Leonardo with thoughts of these self-centered, rapacious, obnoxious tech billionaires: Jobs, William Henry "Bill" Gates III, Jeff Bezos, and what have you?

Isaac Newton, by James Gleick

     The world of Newtonian mechanics seems to us to be so natural that it is difficult to imagine the world before Newton. There were conflicting theories about the movements of the heavenly bodies. For example there was Descartes' theory of swirling corpuscles. And what was light? Colors? Was it corpuscles shooting through the fluid of the void? How could the phenomenon of a prism separating white light into colors be explained? At least people did have the very definite Laws of Kepler to think about.
    Newton was not born into poverty. In fact he was born in the modest manor house of Woolsthorp, presiding over a few tenant farmers. The original apple tree is still preserved as an English national monument. After attending the local school, he studied at Cambridge. The offering in those days was confined to theology and ancient languages. But one of the theologians at Trinity College happened to dabble in mathematics, stimulating Newton's interest. And so during the plague year of 1666 he returned to his manor house, sat under his apple tree, and invented calculus.
    His version of differentials and integrals had lots to do with geometry, especially triangles. But also with "infinitesimals", or "fluxions". How does one define something that is infinitely small - whatever that is supposed to mean - yet not zero? A complicated notation developed which became part of the traditional English school of mathematics. It was criticized by philosophers as being meaningless. Yet more recently, as with all of these things, a whole mathematical theory has been developed - the non-standard analysis of Abraham Robinson -  which, on the face of it seems to have little to do with "infinitesimals", but on a deeper level does. In contrast to that we have the usual version of analysis which is taught to beginning students, and which is beautifully simple, intuitive and straight-forward. I always enjoyed teaching the first year analysis courses.
    When the plague passed away and Newton returned to Cambridge, he immersed himself in alchemy and religion. He had a small shed built next to Trinity College where he mixed his chemicals, using lots of mercury. Heating it up, inhaling the fumes. He became a recluse, filling his notebooks with religious mumbo jumbo, perhaps becoming mentally unhinged with mercury poisoning. He convinced himself of the falsity of the Trinity. Jesus and the Holy Ghost were, for him, subservient to God the Father. But if it were to become known that he was entertaining such dangerous ideas then he would perhaps have been burned at the stake. A law was passed, requiring all members of Cambridge University to take the holy vows and become official priests of the Church, affirming their belief in the given dogmas. But, since some of Newton's achievements in mathematics had become known to well-placed people in London, he was given a special dispensation from the King, exempting him from this requirement.
    Then finally he published his Principia Mathematica, demonstrating the inverse square law for gravity. The idea that the planets were carried along by swirls in the aether was banished forever and Newton became universally admired and honored. There were many beautiful proofs, for example the proof that a spherically symmetric body exerts the same gravitational force outside the body as when all the mass were to be concentrated at the center point: the Shell Theorem. His proof relied exclusively on elementary geometry. Newton spent much time on the problem of the orbit of the Moon. The Earth-Moon system acts as a gyroscope in the gravitational field of the Sun, inducing precession and nutation on the orbit. This is an example of a 3-body problem. A solution would have enabled the precise calculation of the Moon in relationship to the distant stars far into the future, providing navigators with a kind of celestial clock, and thus a method of determining longitudes at sea. But the complexities of the problem were beyond him.
    Newton had a very difficult personality. Thin-skinned. Alone. Always ready to find fault, conflict with others. His sworn enemy was Robert Hooke. When Hooke died, needing another enemy, he settled upon the Astronomer Royal, Edmund Hayley. Despite this he was honored as President of the Royal Society; he was the member of Parliament for Cambridge University; and he was appointed Master of the Mint, becoming wealthy in his lonely old age, full of religious mysticism.

The Bodies of Others, by Naomi Wolf

     If I had read this book three years ago I would have thought that it was a rather overblown, unrealistic science fiction fantasy and I would have written here that the author would have done well if she had altered the story of the book to bring it more into contact with reality, making it more believable. Something like John Ironmonger's Not Forgetting the Whale, which I read two years ago. I would have written that the book suffers from the error of having too much confusing and invented jargon, which confuses the plot:

Zoom, mRNA, VAERS, Mandates, Lockdowns, Social Distancing, Masking, COVID, Legacy Media, Screens

And yet here I am in 2022, living in this world.
    Naomi Wolf describes her experiences during the past two years. She tries to be reasonable, despite the fact that it is so unreasonable. For example she describes her initial feelings of being overwhelmed by the constant hysteria on the "news", and then towards the end of the book she says that while the initial Wuhan version of the corona virus may have been deadly, now it has evolved into a more benign version. But that is nonsense. The example of the Diamond Princess, filled with geriatric pensioners, showed right at the beginning that it was no more than a bad cold. The criminally corrupt regimen which was then ordered by the world's medical authorities killed off many people. Those who got sick in nursing homes were refused treatment; if they got worse they were put into hospitals, knocked out, and "ventilated", killing them. I don't even want to think about the gene-therapy injections which so many people have submitted themselves to.
    We are told of the conditions which Naomi Wolf observed in others. The huge transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. The hopelessness of lonely, isolated people. I have my pension, and thankfully there was no suggestion that genetic injections would be a condition of continuing to receive pensions. I continue to get emails from my old account in the Faculty, and it seems that even now, when the world is supposed to be emerging from the nightmare, the University still maintains various orders and mandates. I refuse to read these emails. But I can imagine that if the Zoom culture persists - the dumbing down of students - then the standards of the University will gradually decline to the level of some sort of "third world" institution.
    On the subject of Zoom, we are told that the Zoom company, whatever it is, has its servers in the Chinese Communist world. Ms. Wolf believes that, as Chairman Mao said, China - the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) - aims to dominate, "to own", the world by the time of the 100th anniversary of its founding in 2048. Since all business takes place via Zoom, we can assume that all of it is being recorded, continuously analyzed by the CCP to be used later to further its own aims. I don't know if our University is making progress with any innovations which might be useful for the CCP, but if so, then China knows about it.
    Naomi Wolf is especially upset about all of this masking and its dreadful consequences for society in general. We recently were in Holland for a week, and in all that time I didn't see a single mask. But here in Germany many people still have them on their faces. This must be the German mentality of following orders. In fact, it was only a year or two ago that I became aware of the fact that there is something called the "Ordnungsamt". That is the "Office of Order". The city where we are, Bielefeld, has a socialist mayor, and he seems to enjoy employing the "Order Police" for various reasons. The real police are polite, reasonable people. One hardly sees them at all. Occasionally one does see a car with all the markings of a police car, and the letters "Polizei" written on the side. But now, more frequently we see cars with the same markings as a police car, yet with the letters "Ordnungsamt" on the side. There was never really a strict "lockdown" here. I just jogged and walked my usual rounds. The supermarket was open, but only with masks. Then suddenly masks were also required in the parking lot of the supermarket, and a tearful woman was arrested by the Ordnungsamt and fined 50 euros. In the winter the local lake froze over during a prolonged cold spell. Only occasionally, perhaps once every 10 years does this happen. The ice becomes thick and hundreds of happy people walk out onto it; they skate, play hockey. But that year the socialist mayor placed his Ordnungsamt police around the lake to arrest any child who dared to take a step onto the ice. Maybe he, along with his "Green" colleagues, hated the idea of cold weather since it confounds their narrative of global warming.
    And so I have now been sitting here, typing away at this computer for half an hour, venting my feelings about this whole business. Naomi Wolf has spent much more time at it than I have, and she has gone into all of this much more deeply. She describes the banality of evil. Who knows what goes on in the mind of William Henry "Bill" Gates III? I can imagine that he is ignorant of much that he has done. For example if we are to believe the documents which have survived, it would seem that Hitler was unaware of the Reichskristallnacht until it was well underway, at which point he tried to stop it. It had been organized by Goebbels who, having had various extramarital affairs, had been given a "dressing down" by Hitler, and by this means he hoped to regain the approval of his "Führer".
    I immediately turn off the radio or the TV if it begins emitting "news", and thus I hardly know what the present, seemingly very weak, socialist chancellor sounds like. He could hardly be worse than Mrs. Merkel. However I do remember what the present, socialist minister of health sounded like when I did actually listen to the "news" three or more years ago. He has an irritating, nasal kind of whining voice. And from what I have gathered by scanning the headlines of various legacy internet sites, I see that he would like to reimpose all of the lockdowns, mask "mandates", and what have you, with the approach of autumn.
    In a few weeks I will have finished with my 75th year in this world, and thus I certainly hope and expect not to have to experience what Naomi Wolf fears the year 2048 will turn out to be.

The Puritan Princess, by Miranda Malins

     The Puritan Princess is Frances Cromwell, the youngest child of the "Lord Protector", Oliver Cromwell. So this is England in the 1650s. The English Civil War has finished, Cromwell has taken on the role of King, but without calling himself that, and his children are in the roles of Princes and Princesses, but not being allowed to be called that. Nevertheless, they are addressed as "Your Highness"; bowed, curtsied, and generally grovelled to, but behind their backs people say that they are not real aristocrats; a few years ago they were cooking, washing the dishes, playing in the dirt just like everybody else.
    The author is a historian specializing in this period, so I assume that the story is as accurate as an historical novel can be. I have no real idea about the English Civil War. I had thought that it was a time of complete religious hysteria in which the entire population of England went mad. But after reading this book it seems that this is not really what it was about. The characters continually refer to the crimes of the former, beheaded King, Charles I. Reading his article in the Wikipedia, I gather that his problem was that he married a Catholic French Princess, thus upsetting most English people who hated, or perhaps were afraid of the Catholics. This is understandable, given the history of Bloody Mary, and then the attempts by the Catholic Spanish to invade England. But in addition to this, King Charles ignored and dismissed Parliament, considering himself to be possessed of the divine right to do whatever he pleased. People rebelled against him, and in the end, after lots of turbulence, civil war, Cromwell and the restoration of the monarchy with Charles II, the system of constitutional monarchy was established.
    In the book, Oliver Cromwell is depicted as a highly moral but tolerant man. Not a religious fanatic. Live and let live. But he did draw the line at music during church services. All sorts of different Christian churches sprang up: Methodists, Baptists, Quakers, and what have you. Catholics not being particularly welcome. Only the angry Puritans looked down on everything. Thus the title of the book is a bit confusing since, from the story we are told, Frances was not a Puritan.
    Apart from the Puritans and also the Republicans who would have preferred to be rid of all the aristocrats, most people were thankful that Cromwell had taken on the role of king, providing stability and an end to the chaos of the Civil War. People begged him to assume the formal title of King. Thus stability would be insured in the future with the monarchy existing in a new dynasty, based on his family. But Cromwell hesitated, dithered. Would that be the right thing? Did he really have the divine right?
    Of course that is nonsense. All royal families stem from some sort of original warlord who slaughtered his way onto the throne. Divinity comes later. Unfortunately, in the midst of all this, the Lord Protector Cromwell took to his bed and died. Who knows what it was. Perhaps some sort of Corona Virus?
 Addendum: I am now halfway through a book about malaria, and I see that it is said there that Cromwell, as well as his successor, Charles II, died of malaria. On the other hand it is also said that malaria is difficult to diagnose, even today. So who knows?
    England was left in a state of uncertainty. A vacuum which Nature abhors. Cromwell's oldest surviving son, Richard, attempted to take on the title of Lord Protector Number 2, but nobody really believed it. The Puritans and the Army said, "Let there be a Republic" without a king. But most people wanted a restoration of the monarchy. Would this lead to a renewed civil war? The situation was resolved by General Monck who led his army from Scotland - accompanied by general acclaim - to restore the monarchy by bringing Charles II back from France. And thus the heroine of this book, Frances Cromwell, was demoted from being a (pseudo)-princess back into normal obscurity.
    The story of the book is a love story of Frances with her husband Robert Rich. He was indeed a rich aristocrat. A sickly specimen, far removed from the ideals of military prowess which seems to have been admired in those violent times, he died soon after marrying Frances. She is represented as being a torridly passionate lover. This is difficult to imagine when we gaze at her portrait, but then we are told that it was painted in the midst of her passionate mourning.

Other Minds, by Peter Godfrey-Smith

     The author is Professor of History and the Philosophy of Science at the University of Sydney. He tells us that he is a philosopher. But living in Sydney with its magnificent harbor and the crystal-clear waters in many of the bays leading into the Pacific, the idea of scuba-diving had great appeal. He became fascinated with the lives of the cuttlefish, with their spectacularly colorful displays, and then the octopuses. These are species within the Cephalopoda class of life. While most cephalopods live a dull, almost plant-like life, seemingly devoid of any intelligence at all, hiding within their shells, the cuttlefish, octopuses and to a lesser extent squid, seem to be highly intelligent.
    The book alternates chapters describing biology - and especially the Tree of Life - and chapters of philosophical speculation. We learn that multi-cellular life did not begin in the Cambrian epoch, but rather in the Ediacaren epoch which directly preceded the Cambrian, being the period 635-538.8 million years ago. It is named in honor of a hill country in South Australia. We are told that even as long ago as that, in the great tree of life, the branch which led to us parted ways with the branch leading to the octopuses. Thus, given that all those ediacarans were so primitive as to be nothing more than pulsating robots, it follows that intelligence has developed following two completely independent paths. It is as if the octopuses are creatures from another world.
    The philosophical chapters speculate about what animals think, feel, experience. Which animals have self-awareness? When did self-awareness start? One can write thousands of words on such a subject, leading nowhere. Indeed, while I am self-aware, how do I know that anybody else is? After all, a robot could just as easily claim such an attribute if it were programmed to do so. It is my belief that other people are self-aware. When reading a novel I have the feeling of being within the mind of the author, however fleetingly. So this strengthens my belief in the self-awareness of others. Peter Godfrey-Smith tells us that the "inner voice", expressing words within our minds without saying them out loud, plays a role in this. Can it be that most people spend their days talking to themselves? I certainly don't. Walking, or running, or bicycling, and certainly when playing music, I am not talking to myself. In fact I often find the inner voice to be an irritation, distracting me from the experience of Now.
    Well into the story, the author tells us of the time he first decided to start writing the book, reading up on the biology of cephalopods. He was shocked to discover that cuttlefish and octopuses have very short lives. They only live 2 or 3 years before falling apart, dying of old age. This seems crazy. Why do they have all this intelligence? What is it for? Surely being intelligent means you spend time learning new things in order to apply them in later life to constructive purposes. But if there is no later life then it seems meaningless. He observes the sad sight of friendly cuttlefish he has been diving with for months gradually losing their color, white splotches taking over, sickness and decay after such a short life; a time when a human baby is just beginning to find words to speak, with a whole life ahead into the future.
    We are told of the theory of aging of Medawar and Haldane. Why is it that octopuses live just a couple of years while, at the same time, the Yelloweye rockfish lives to be 120 years old? The standard idea is that it is either (i) the cells of the body succumb to random errors and chaos, or (ii) the telomeres get too short. But if (i) is the case, why do the cells of the rockfish fail to have random errors? In fact bacteria divide themselves and continue to grow for millions of years without falling prey to random errors. As for (ii), again, why don't the telomeres of rockfish get shortened? Could it be that they lengthen themselves with telomerase? This seems very hypothetical. In contrast, Medawar and Haldane's theory explains it all nicely.
    The idea is that all of life is subject to mutations. Some are good, most are bad. The bad might make life difficult for the given organism right at the beginning of life, so it dies off and the mutation is eliminated. But some mutations might only effect the organism when it is older. Some might even have the effect of being good when the organism is young and then be bad when it is old. These bad mutations will be eliminated from the gene pool only slowly, or not at all. And so over time our genome becomes filled with mutations which destroy life after a given time. For this reason we will never be able to "conquer" aging. I suppose most people find this to be depressing. They hope for an elixir, giving eternal life here on Earth, and so they prefer to think about telomeres and imaginary error-correcting drugs.
    Why do cuttlefish and octopuses have short lives? Because back in the mists of time, hundreds of millions of years ago, they lost the protective shells which kept their cousin cephalopods from being eaten by big fish. Instead evolution gave them a quick, intense life which soon ends with the ravishes of fish. They quickly mate and produce huge numbers of eggs for the next generation. In contrast rockfish are poisonous and they live in deep water, making them unattractive as prey.

The Fever, by Sonia Shah

     This book is concerned with malaria. Sonia Shah is an American of Indian descent. At the beginning she tells us that as a child she often visited her relatives in India, sleeping in the hot, muggy atmosphere under a mosquito net next to her cousins who peacefully slept in the free air, oblivious to the swarms of mosquitoes. And when she had grown up and become a journalist, telling her relatives that she was planning to write a book about malaria, they asked why? Malaria is nothing. It is like the common cold. Why write a book about that? And then people she meets in the epicenter of malaria, in the Heart of Africa, say the same thing.
    On the other hand she tells us how many millions die of malaria. It all seems rather confusing. What is she trying to tell us? The narration is not helped when we find a sentence like this in the text:
With each logarithmic increase in viral load, the probability that an HIV-infected person will transmit the virus during sexual intercourse increases by nearly 250 percent.
What is a "logarithmic increase"? Does the author know what a logarithm is, and why such a sentence is gobbledygook?
    If I understand what she is trying to tell us, it seems that the situation is such that if people survive an initial onslaught of malaria, then there is some immunity. But it wears off so it is necessary to have a renewed infection every year or so, and these infections are then like a common cold. Something which people have been living with for hundreds of thousands of years.
    We are told about the attempts to conquer malaria. For example Michael Crichton is quoted as saying that Rachael Carson, the author of Silent Spring, was responsible for killing more people than did Adolf Hitler, since her book led to a movement to ban DDT. Yet the book describes in detail the history of DDT. The business of thin egg shells may indeed have been pure fantasy, but the reality was that the mosquitoes became immune to DDT. When it was sprayed everywhere in the 1950s it also killed off lots of other insects as well. This led to unintended consequences which often seemed worse than the malaria it was supposed to be - but wasn't - defeating. Then there is the traditional quinine, which still seems to be the treatment of choice. Other drugs had great effect, but soon the malarial microbes in their various forms became immune to them. The book seems to be saying that malaria becomes a problem especially when people disrupt the environment, changing things. The mosquitoes and the malaria immediately take advantage of the new situation.
    I was surprised to learn that malaria was endemic in England and in New England, as well as in northern Europe, even during the Little Ice Age. Exactly why these regions are now free of malaria was not clearly described. Could it make a comeback, with all the changes in modern life we are now experiencing?
    The book was written well before the corona hysteria of the last few years. So perhaps it is understandable that the author writes in positive ways about the so-called "Gates Foundation". But the fact is mentioned that the efforts of William Henry "Bill" Gates III, and perhaps his (ex-?)wife, who has allowed her name to be dragged into the whole business, have not been helpful. The sums of money they throw about has distorted research and confounded the use of more practical measures.

The Tuscan Child, by Rhys Bowen

     Judging by her internet homepage, the author, who is English, seems to produce books at the rate of one per year. She will soon have reached the level of productivity of Anthony Trollope, or even of his mother. Well, I enjoyed this one. It was a nice poignant love story. Written especially to satisfy English sensibilities.
    A World War II bomber is shot down over enemy territory in Italy. The injured pilot parachutes to safety in an olive grove. He is nursed back to strength by a beautiful, young, angelic, Italian woman while hiding in a bombed out hill-top monastery.  The bomber pilot is the heir to a stately home back in England, the title baronet gracing the family for 400 years. It is said that the monastery was bombed to smithereens by the Allies. Maybe it was those uncouth Americans. But somehow it seems to me that the author would have painted a more convincing picture of the grace of the hero if she had made him a fighter pilot; a modern-day knight of the air, honorably engaged in mortal combat, rather than simply dropping bombs. The occupying Germans are all horrible monsters who murder everybody in any village which is not to their liking. They take all the food, rape all the women and girls. All of this takes place in December 1944.
    Then alternatively we have lots of chapters which take place in 1973. The pilot had returned to England, finding that his father had died. He was now the titled Sir Hugo. Death duties of a million pounds made him bankrupt, forcing him to sell the family estates, existing by becoming a teacher at the boarding school for girls which was established on the property. He wished to marry his angelic Italian savior, but she seemed to have disappeared. Embittered, he married the one remaining servant, a 42 year old woman, and they had a daughter who now, in 1973, is alone in the world; no family, uncertain prospects, recovering from a love affair which had gone wrong.
    The daughter finds some documents of the father and decides to find out what happened back then in Tuscany. She travels to the tiny village where the angelic savior had lived. Everything is wonderful. The climate is wonderful. The people are so wonderfully warm, not like cold England. The food is wonderful. She finds a room in a farm outside the village with a wonderful, loving Italian mama, together with the recently married daughter and baby. The Italian mama calls her mia cara. The mama teaches her how to cook.
    But she finds out about the dark secret. The most powerful man in the village betrayed the brave partisans back then in 1944. Now, in 1973, he tries to shoot the daughter, our heroine, in order to prevent her from exposing the Truth, but he falls to his death in a dramatic scene. She falls in love with the son of the angelic savior, finding a long-lost painting of Leonardo da Vinci, and perhaps they live happily ever after.

Otherlands, by Thomas Halliday

     The author is a young paleontologist who would like to describe for us what it would be like to be transported back millions of years into the past and see what it was really like back then. The book starts off badly. In order to give us a vision of the vast scope of past time, he imagines the entire history of our planet to be condensed in time to the duration of one day. Thus 4 1/2 billion years becomes 24 hours. He then tells us that the last great extinction event before the advent of humanity - the end of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago -  in this "day" of the earth, occurred at just 21 seconds before midnight. All of human history took place in the last 2 thousands of the last second of the day.
    ...I thought, Wow! Imagine that. I couldn't wait to tell somebody.
    But wait a minute. To make the calculation easier, let us say that the earth is 4.8 billion years old. Or 4,800 million years. Divided by 24 gives 200 million years per hour. Thus 65 million years becomes:
60 ÷ (200/65) = 19 minutes and 30 seconds
before midnight. A million years takes 18 seconds. So humanity has been here for a couple of seconds. It isn't as wild as we had thought.
    And then there are more mistakes. It is asserted that red light has a shorter wavelength than blue. And again, that a column of water a square meter in cross section and a kilometer high weighs only 10 tons. That the slowing down of the rotation of the Earth is due to friction. Well, yes, that is ultimately true. It is the tidal effect of the Moon's gravitation and the "friction" of the turbulence of the water in the tides - and even the minute friction in the deformations of the solid Earth, and the Atmosphere - retarding them slightly, which produces a dragging effect from the Moon, slowing down the Earth's rotation.
    All of this makes me sympathize with the author, Thomas Halliday. He doesn't seem to have had much to do with physics. And he has had no editor to go carefully through his manuscript, checking for such blunders, proofreading things. Instead he has been on a lonely quest, typing his thoughts into his computer, emailing his manuscript, alone, to a cold, lifeless publishing company. Such is the fate of modern man.
    Reading on from chapter to chapter we soon discover that the book is almost exclusively concerned with paleontology. I had a look through the bookshelves here, among the cobwebs in the back, but couldn't find the textbook on paleontology which I had as a first year student taking the geology course all those years ago at the Australian National University. This book certainly describes many more fossils than were known in those days, and in a much more flowery language than the dry tome I had to study. There seem to be a number of sites where the finds of fossils are particularly rich, and so the book takes us back, chapter for chapter, to ever more scenes of "deep time", describing in little vignettes how one creature with an incomprehensible latinized name lurks in the bushes or forests to eat another creature with a different latinized name. Each chapter is preceded by a picture of the positions of the continents: Gondwanaland, Laurasia, and what have you, as they drift about upon the Earth's surface. Back in 1966, the professors of geology at the ANU pooh-poohed the the notion of continental drift as being nothing more than ridiculous speculation.
    I was disappointed, since I had thought that the book would be concerned with other things. After all, if the existence of the Earth is reduced to  one day, then the last chapter (but one) of this book only describes the things at 550 million years ago. According to our previous calculation, this is at  9:15 in the evening of our Earth's day. What about all the time in the early morning hours, the dawning of the light of day, lunch-time, an afternoon nap, having dinner, avoiding the evening "news"? It is only at a quarter past nine in the evening, when we are gradually getting sleepy, tired of all the events of the day, that this book starts to say something about the last hours. A time when we are already sleeping into the night.
    Well, OK. It is a paleontology book, and there is practically nothing fossil-wise to find before 9:15 pm. But imagine the huge explosion when something hit the Earth in the early morning, pulverizing it to eventually fall back into the Earth-Moon system. Then what was it like when the oceans first condensed from an atmosphere which must have been as hellish as that of Venus. Imagine the first life in the seas, gradually developing itself over all those unimaginable hours in the middle of the day. And then late in the day, what did the dramatic transformation of the atmosphere into a mixture containing vast amounts of that highly reactive - one might almost say poisonous gas - free oxygen, look like? The book merely skips over the Snowball Earth phase of things. Perhaps this is because it doesn't really fit into the standard narrative, endlessly drummed into us via the "news", which the author, sadly, feels compelled to repeat.
    The fact of the matter is that in the spectrum of light which CO2 absorbs, the atmosphere is already practically opaque. The band is saturated. This despite the fact that CO2 is presently only about 0.04% of the atmosphere. We might imagine a vast football stadium with 100,000 spectators; 0.04% of that is just 40 people vaguely scattered about in the crowd. Even doubling or tripling the amount will hardly increase the absorption. After all, opaque is opaque. We can see that there is practically no correlation between the level of CO2 in the atmosphere and temperature over "deep" geological time by looking at this graph:



which appears here. Chapter 14 of the book describes the plunge into the depths of an ice age at 444 million years ago. While the book repeatedly tries to find greenhouse gasses to explain warm periods (which, as we see, represent most of the history of the past 600 million years), it is remarkably vague about the 444 million year event.
    The chaos of the weather is reflected in the chaos of geological climate. What is the influence of the Sun, the Moon, the planets, the movement through the galaxy, the positions of the continents? And surely water, with all its interesting properties is a primary influence: its solid state floats on its liquid state, its vapor is lighter than air, it forms clouds which are driven in a chaotic dance by the heat of the sun, raining, producing storms. The spectrum of absorption of its vapor is much broader than that of CO2.
    Returning to the vision of the "day" of the Earth, looking at the last 18 seconds before midnight, we see the Earth covered in ice, and then in the blink of an eye - a tenth of a second - the ice melts and freezes again. This blinking on and off went on quickly up to about 9 seconds before midnight, perhaps once every second, and then it slowed down with longer duration ice periods of about 2 seconds between blinks. We are now at midnight, the end of a blink. What will happen when the eyelid comes up in a fraction of a tenth of a second after midnight? Will we see ice, or will we suddenly, absurdly, see a hot, burning Earth? People have always believed that they are the most important things in Creation, filled with god-like powers. But in reality the Earth will go on as ever before, oblivious to the minor disturbances in the blinking of an eye represented by this ephemeral episode of humanity living on the planet.