This year (2017)
Previous years: 2016; 2015; 2014; 2013; 2012; 2011; 2010; 2009; 2008; 2007; 2006; 2005
Reporter Who Knew Too Much
Signs Preceding the
End of the World
The Gap of Time
Diner at the Homesick
Eyesight Without Glasses
in a Foreign Language
The Noise of
Yuval Noah Harari:
Sapiens: A Brief
History of Humankind
of the Wine
The Girl Friend
The Man Who Shot
Hunters in the Dark
The Ballad of a Small Player
Siege of Krishnapur
I ordered this antiquarian
book which was published in the year 1928 through amazon.com, and
when it came I was somewhat surprised to find that it was printed
using the traditional fraktur style. Thus, for fun, I will continue
a fraktur font.
As I think I have written here ſomewhere
before, I uſe the Linux operating ſyſtem, and for people who can't
be bothered with learning the ins and outs of html, the Composer
program which is part of the SeaMonkey browſer makes it eaſy for
me to just keep adding theſe little texts into my ſite. But
although there ſeem to be huge numbers of poſſible fonts to choſe
from, unfortunately, there iſn't any true fraktur font liſted
within the program. Clicking about the internet, I found that http://unifraktur.sourceforge.net/maguntia.html
did offer ſomething ſeſnible, together with ſome inſtructions on
how to embed it in a webpage. But it didn't work. Then I found
that Google alſo offers lots of fonts at https://fonts.google.com/,
including the UnifrakturMaguntia font which I am uſing here. They
alſo gave ſome html code (which I hardly underſtand; looking at
the html code, it ſeems the SeaMonkey Composer ſometimes makes a
real meſſ of things. I'll ſee what I can do to clear it up!) for
embedding the font in a text, and it ſeems to work. But then, as
is always the caſe with theſe computer things, for ſome reaſon one
detail didn't ſeem to work. Namely, in fraktur, if you have a
ſmall "s" which iſn't at the end of a word, then it ſhould be
written as a "long-s", that is: "ſ". One might hope that the
compoſer program would be ſmart enough to follow this rule by
itſelf, but ſuch a hope would be miſplaced. Html ſimply ſets the
letters, one after another as they come up in the file. Thus ſome
new character is uſed for typing the long-s. It is "ſ",
which looks a lot like the uſual "f", but if
you look very cloſely you will ſee that the right-hand bit of the
croſſ-bar of the f is miſſing. All this was
new to me. I've never ſeen this character before. Anyway, for ſome
ſtrange reaſon or another, the Google link to the
UnifrakturMaguntia font produced ſomething which did not render
the long-s properly. But the link liſted above does work. (To be
frank, even when examining this fraktur ſtuff with a magnifying
glaſſ (is that correct?), I can't ſee the difference between the
long-s and the f. Is there a difference?)
Perhaps if you have read this little text ſo
far you may underſtand that I found it to be tiring to read a
whole book ſet in fraktur. On the other hand, deſpite the fact
that the book is almoſt 100 years old, the pages are a nice milky
color and the printing remains clear. The nicely woven binding
ſhows no ſign of becoming dry or cracked. One is tranſported to an
earlier time, thinking of books publiſhed hundreds of years ago;
for example thoſe old Bibles from the renaiſſance period. Fraktur
ſeems to have been eſpecially common in German ſpeaking lands. Old
texts in French or Engliſh, ſay from the baroque period, are
uſually printed in a more modern, often very eaſily readable font.
But to return to the book itſelf... and
to unburden the reader by returning to a "normal" font, I wrote
about this book years ago when reviewing
another book concerned with the Silk Road. Roland, the son of
the author, and his wife were practically the driving force behind
our reading group. Unfortunately they are no more, and things
haven't been the same since. Roland told me about his father and he
lent me a copy of this book which had been printed in an earlier
edition. I think it was first published in 1917, during the Great
War. The printing was not in fraktur, instead it was a "normal"
modern font. I photocopied it and loosely bound the sheets together,
but then some years ago I lent that photocopy to somebody else who
hasn't returned it. And so then, on a whim, a few days ago I looked
to see if a copy might be available through amazon.
The title of the book might be translated as:
"Into the closed (or perhaps the secret) land". And the subtitle is:
"Ein Kampf mit Mensch und Meile" - or "A battle with men and miles".
Hentig was a diplomat, having been assigned to the German
Embassies first in Peking, and then Istanbul. With the outbreak of
war in 1914, he returned to Germany to fight on the Eastern Front,
but then he was ordered to Berlin to organize an expedition to
Afghanistan. This led to an extraordinary trek which in the end took
him around the world. But rather than repeat myself here, I refer to
what I wrote 10 years ago. I think it's a shame that the book has
never been translated into English.
This book is about Dorothy
Kilgallen, the reporter, gossip columnist, TV game show
personality and socialite of the 1950s and early 1960s. From 1945
until 1963 she, along with her husband, Richard Kollmar, every
morning except Sundays, hosted a radio program on the New York
channel WOR called "Breakfast with Dorothy and Dick". There must be
many thousands of episodes to choose from. For example here
is one linkable episode which I was able to find.
Such twaddle! Imagine having to get up each
morning for 18 years and continue to spew out such nonsense for
breakfast. And then Kilgallen spent her evenings at night clubs,
Broadway plays, fashionable restaurants, picking up the newest
gossip for her daily newspaper column. On Sundays she appeared in
the TV program "What's My Line?". So I suppose she actually enjoyed
the life. Her husband, Dick, apparently did not, for he soon took to
drink and womanizing. Despite this he had to continue on with the
live breakfast show, pretending to be something he was not, day in,
day out, for week after week, month after month, year after year.
But that isn't really the theme of this book.
Kilgallen was found on the morning of November 8th, 1965 in her bed,
dead. An autopsy established that she had alcohol, together with
various drugs, sleeping pills and what have you, in her blood. Was
it suicide? Was it an accident - mistakenly taking too many of the
sleeping pills she habitually took every night, together with a
drink or two? Or was it murder?
The author convincingly discounts the first two
possibilities. He also shows that the obvious candidate as murderer,
Dick, also couldn't really have done it.
Instead, he concentrates on the fact that
Kilgallen was interested in courtroom murder trials, having covered
numbers of them for her newspaper, often using her celebrity status
to obtain inside information. Of course we have the greatest murder
mystery of them all: Kennedy - Oswald - and then Jack Ruby. Oswald
had been denied a trial owing to the fact that Ruby killed him, but
then Dorothy Kilgallen had the opportunity to follow the Ruby trial,
becoming herself the center of attention and thus learning things
which were not available to the other reporters who were present.
Unlike other reporters who are afraid to go into things deeply for
fear of losing their jobs, Kilgallen tried to learn all she could
about the Kennedy assassination, assembling a large volume of notes,
documents, interviews. Thus she must have learned much more than
later-day investigators, frustrated by the fact that documents have
disappeared, witnesses have died, or themselves been killed.
Her very extensive dossier on the Kennedy
assassination was never found. Apparently it disappeared on the
night she was murdered. The author of the present book, Mark Shaw,
propounds the theory that the Mafia was the exclusive perpetrator of
the whole business. Joe Kennedy, the father of Jack and Bobby, was
himself a center of organized crime in the 1930s. In order to get
Jack elected to the presidency in 1960, he applied to his Mafia
friends to fix the elections in Illinois and Ohio, with the promise
in return that under Jack's presidency, politics would give them a
free pass to do whatever they liked. But Joe double-crossed the
Mafia! He determined that Bobby become Attorney General and that he
should go after organized crime. Thus Bobby was shocked about the
fact that Jack was killed rather than he himself. The Mafia, and in
Marcello, knew that killing Bobby would not be enough. If Jack
remained president then he would go after them with renewed force.
Thus killing Jack brought the Mafia-friendly Lyndon Johnson into the
White House, and Bobby withdrew into guilt-driven inaction. Only
after he won the California primary in 1968 did he become a danger
again to be killed. According to the book, Dorothy Kilgallen was
getting too near the truth, traveling to New Orleans, finding things
out. And so Carlos Marcello had her eliminated. The agent of
Marcello, or perhaps of some of his collegues (Sam Giancana,
or whoever it was), according to the author, must have been the
young Ron Pataky who had ingratiated himself with Dorothy Kilgallen.
Well, OK. All of this seems to me to be quite
plausible. But on the other hand, I can't imagine that Carlos
Marcello could have gotten the whole thing together on his own.
There are just too many details - for example as explained in the
book "JFK and the
Unspeakable" - which would surely have been beyond the
capabilities of the Mafia. One way or another, it is clear that
Dorothy Kilgallen got herself into more hot water than she had
by Margaret Atwood
The story is a retelling of
Shakespeare's (or whoever was writing using that nom de plume) "The
Tempest", in a modern and not quite so fantastical setting.
Felix is the director of a Shakespearean theater company in a
Canadian city. He delegates much of the boring, day to day details
to his assistant, Tony. Felix is creative, avant-garde. His
productions often verge on the bizarre, if not the absurd. And so
the more calm, scheming Tony organizes a coup, deposing Felix and
taking over the directorship himself.
Felix withdraws to a primitive shack somewhere in
the wastes of Canada and smolders, thinking of revenge. The years
pass. Felix takes on the project of developing a theater group in a
prison somewhere in the neighborhood, again based on Shakespearean
plays. After a couple of years the group becomes well established,
and Felix' plan for revenge matures, based on The Tempest, a play
which has much to do with prisons.
Tony and a few of his cronies have become
established figures in Canadian politics, with ministerial rang.
They have been invited to attend this new play put on in the prison.
And so the story becomes - more or less - the story of Shakespeare's
Tempest, with the prison substituted for the island. It is all a bit
far-fetched and implausible, but of course the play is too. As with
Prospero, Felix is restored to the directorship of the theater
company, and Tony - or Antonio - is disgraced.
Over the years I have accumulated a leather-bound
volume of the complete works of Shakespeare from the Oxford
University Press, printed in small, closely spaced type, and also a
set of eight generous volumes of the Shakespeare plays, printed
comfortably on pleasantly thick paper by the Folio Society. But
despite this, I continue to find it to be a tedious exercise to read
through a play. Much is missing from the story when we are
confronted with dialogue alone, to be read in solitude. Where are
the emotions of the actors. The dramatic scenes?
We did get a DVD of the Tempest some years ago.
An eccentric production. A woman, Helen Mirren, plays the part of
Prospero. So I watched it again. Some of the dialogue in this
production - which may have been superfluous - was shortened in
comparison with the official version. Still, more so than when first
watching the film, I was interested in the details and how they
corresponded with Margaret Atwood's story.
We have a couple of further Shakespeare DVDs, but
certainly not the whole collection. Unfortunately the German version
of Netflix offers no Shakespeare at all, but Amazon Prime Video does
have a few, so that's something to look forward to when at loose
Margaret Atwood's Tempest is part of The
Hogarth Shakespeare Project, in which a number of well-known
authors write novels on the themes of different Shakespeare plays.
I'm looking forward to reading some of these in the future.
This is a very short novel
which can be read in a single sitting. The author is Mexican, and
this is a translation into English. It is a dream-like story. Short,
poetic sentences. The translator has tried to emulate the original
Spanish, and in an Afterword she describes the style of the
original. Inventive words, colloquial phrases. As an example of her
translation, when saying that somebody is going away, or leaving,
she says that they "verse". The noun has suddenly become a verb. A
strange idea, apparently original to the translator, Lisa
The story is about a young woman leaving her
Mexican village in order to find her brother who has crossed the
border into the United States and seems to have disappeared. She
needs the help of the local drug barons, then crosses the Rio Grande
on an inner tube. She and her helper are held up at gunpoint by a
vigilante - a Texan, or New Mexican farmer, or whatever - who
subscribes to the theories of the newly elected American President,
Donald Trump. She escapes with a minor bullet wound, walking over a
mountain to her next helper. But where is the brother? Eventually
she finds him, enlisted under a false name in the U.S. Army, between
one tour or another in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or wherever they are,
making a mess of those places. (Can we really hope that Donald Trump
will be able to put an end to all of these messes?) At the end she
descends into some sort of cellar filled with further aliens,
receiving false papers in this hostile land.
A wonderful retelling of
Shakespeare's Winter Tale. The author, Jeanette Winterson tells us
that she was an orphan as a child, and so the story meant much to
her. Leontes, King of Sicily becomes Leo, a rich, egoistic, London
financier and property tycoon. Hermine, Loentes wife becomes MiMi, a
French chanson singer whom Leo met in Paris and married, loving her,
but thinking of her as his possession. Perdita, the daughter remains
Perdita. Polixenes, King of Bohemia, becomes Xenes, the childhood
homosexual friend of Leo, later wealthy business associate, who
escapes to America - the deep South - after the blowup with Leo. And
Although the novel certainly takes much more time
to read than the play, still it is a fast-paced, enjoyable book.
Leo's incredible jealousy and horrible behavior tax our imagination.
Perdita is the lovely, young, but modern maiden. And all the other
characters come up too, leading us to Shakespeare's happy ending.
This is a retelling of The
Merchant of Venice. Of course the editors at the Hogarth Press must
have been careful to choose an author of Jewish background. Anyone
else taking on such a delicate project would certainly be accused of
being a Nazi, or worse.
Jacobson avoids the unpleasant, politically incorrect aspects
of Shakespeare's (or whoever it was) play. Instead he introduces
Shylock as a kind of ghost, met in a London cemetery by the
pseudo-Shylock, a character with the Eastern European name of Simon
Strulovitch. Shylock and Strulovitch have long philosophical talks
about the nature of Judaism and its superiority in comparison with
other religions, especially Christendom, and especially everything
pertaining to Germany. As in Shakespeare's play, Shylock laments the
fate of his daughter Jessica, who ran off with a non-Jew. And in
just the same way, Strolovitch's daughter Beatrice is in the process
of running off with a football player in England's 4th or 5th, or
something regional league who, as a spontaneous gesture, after
kicking the first goal he had ever kicked in his life, in a fit of
unthinking, or unknowing, euphoria, raised his arm in what was
interpreted in the English press as a Nazi salute. Strolovitch was
horrified in the same way that the renaissance Shylock was horrified
about what had become of his Jessica.
There are further characters mimicking those in
The Merchant of Venice. In fact Beatrice and her footballer travel
off to modern-day Venice. Antonio becomes d'Anton, a rich,
homosexual connoisseur who wishes to help the dull-witted
footballer. Shylock spies in Beatrice's computer, finding evidence
that she had slept with the footballer before her 16th birthday,
which is a crime in England.
Through many long passages in the book we are
treated to a discussion of the nature of the Jew. Strolovitch
rejects much of what Shylock says. He refuses to take religion
seriously. Is Judaism a tribal phenomenon? An ethnicity? In theory
he wants nothing to do with these things. But he draws the line at
his daughter marrying a non-Jew. This is the one thing which is
holy, as it was for Shylock.
So the threat is that Strolovitch, a respecter of
law, will bring down the weight of the law on the footballer,
d'Anton, and all their friends, accusing them of pedophilia,
procurement, and what have you. Strolovitch's condition is that the
footballer return with Beatrice and submit himself to circumcision,
as proof of his sincerity in embracing all things Jewish. But in a
letter, d'Anton offers himself for this ceremony in the event that
the loving pair fail to materalize.
After long discussions of the role of
circumcision as the defining element of Judaism, the original injury
leading to Jewish anger, we have a kind of garden-party representing
the trial, after which d'Anton is driven with bowed head to the
medical clinic, specializing in the circumcision of wealthy men. I
suppose I shouldn't reveal the final twist to the story. But I found
this whole circumcision business to be somewhat less than plausible.
After all, it is not exclusive to Jewish men. Islamic men are also circumcised,
as are the vast majority of men in the United States. It is
generally done for reasons of hygiene, and it has been shown that
the transmission of various diseases is less likely with circumcised
men in comparison with those which are not circumcised.
Some modern scholars claim that the character
Shylock in Shakespeare's play is not really evil. He has a number of
speeches appealing to our sympathy. Of course the audience in London
in the early 1600s had no direct experience of Jewish people. Edward
the first expelled them in the year 1290, and it was only in 1657
that Oliver Cromwell rescinded the order. Thus Shylock represented
not the murderer of Christ, or whatever else those anti-Semites can
think of to justify their thoughts. Surely for Shakespeare's
audience, Shylock was simply the money lender, the banker, the
A story could be made in which the modern-day CEO
of Goldman-Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, someone who makes much of his
Jewish background, is Shylock, who is extracting his pound of flesh
from the simple people of Greece. But of course that would be
politically unacceptable, even if it were to be pointed out that the
circle of rapacious bankers includes many who do not belong to the
Jewish religion, or tribe, or whatever. For example Blankfein's
predecessor, Henry Paulson, the man who really organized the
destruction of Greece and the trillions of bail-out money under
George W. Bush, is not Jewish.
I enjoyed this one. A
retelling of The
Taming of the Shrew. But I don't think I have ever read all
the way through that play. Shakespeare editions usually have a short
synopsis of the plot, dates of the first known performance, listing
of the sources the author ("Shakespeare") must have used, and so on,
at the beginning. But just thinking about the plot put me off.
Marrying a poor woman to a potentially violent, overbearing man.
This may have been a subject of much humor for Elizabethan
Londoners, as it would be for contemporary Taliban, Isis, some
Hindus, Saudi Arabians, and what have you, but I don't think it is
at all funny. Modern critics dismiss the misogyny as being something
else, meaningless, non-existent, thus encouraging us to join in the
This book only vaguely relates to the play. It
becomes a normal love story which has probably been written hundreds
of times over the years with only slight variations of the details.
But still, Anne Tyler writes well, and I was often laughing out
loud, even to the point of bringing myself to tears.
Kate's father is not a Duke, or King, or Lord, as
all those Shakespearean characters boringly tend to be. Instead he
is a microbiologist at Johns Hopkins University, where he is
studying autoimmune diseases. He has developed an obscure theory to
explain them, deviating from the usual approach. I would have been
interested, but Anne Tyler does not go into detail here. As is often
the case in science, he is ostracized from the Faculty, being moved
to a building off-campus with very restricted funds for research
assistants, and what have you. His one assistant is Pyotr, an
awkward Eastern European whose three-year visa for working in the
United States is about to expire. For the father this will be a
disaster. All his work will be for nothing. If only Kate would marry
Pyotr, thus allowing him extended time in the country and eventually
a Green Card...
But what does poor Kate think about all this?
Obviously she is disgusted. Her father, Professor Battista, does not
intend that she should actually sleep with Pytor. Heaven forbid! He
can just move into a spare room of the house and pretend to become
more intimate if the snoops from the Department of Immigration start
sniffing about the place.
Eventually both we, and Kate, warm to the awkward
Pyotr, they marry in chaos, and in an afterword the author tells us
a little story about their child being bored on the trip to a
foreign country, being allowed to play endless computer games on his
smartphone while his father and grandfather are awarded a prize.
Presumably the Nobel Prize.
This was a sad book, a
contrast to the happy "Vinegar Girl". The author wrote it more at
the beginning of her career, back in 1982. We examine the Tulls, a
family living in Baltimore. The mother's name is Pearl. I forget the
dates, but she must have grown up in the 1920s, putting off marrying
too long, then accepting a man she didn't love. They had three
children: Cody is the oldest, then Ezra, and the girl Jenny. Just
having names like this would drive anybody crazy.
The husband, Beck, after 10 years of marriage has
had enough and disappears, occasionally sending letters from various
places, containing 50 dollars. Pearl refuses to believe it and
pretends to the world and to her children for year after year that
he is just temporarily away on business. It is unmentionable. A
skeleton in the closet. Pearl takes on a job at the cash register of
the local store, pretending to the world that she is superior to
And so the children grow up, fatherless; perhaps
a not uncommon experience in the modern world. The mother, Pearl, is
often angry, even violently so, hitting the children. But Ezra is
her favorite, always reasonable, considerate. This infuriates Cody
who develops a simmering anger towards Ezra. He does terrible things
to Ezra, even when they become grown up. Jenny distances herself
from all these family problems, quickly marrying one unsuitable man
For anybody living in a halfway "normal" and
happy family, reading this book provides a pleasant antidote to any
feelings that things are not going along as well as they should.
Many years ago I read Aldous
Huxley's "The Art of Seeing". He had become nearly blind, and so in
order to preserve his vision he had sought medical advice in 1939 by
a follower of Dr. Bates (who had died in 1931). He described various
exercises for the eyes: gently holding the hands over the eyes to
relax them, "bathing" the eyes in the full sunlight of Southern
California. Somehow I seem to have lost my copy of Huxley's book,
but looking things up in the internet I found that Bates' original
book has been republished in a paperback edition, describing the Bates Method.
So I ordered it.
The book tells us that we must simply discard our
glasses. Those who fail to take this decisive step will never
improve their vision. The idea is that all problems with vision stem
from the the fact that we are not relaxed. The key to perfect vision
is perfect relaxation. The reason for this, according to Bates, is
that the lens of the eye is static, only providing a fixed focus.
The mechanism for changing the focal point is the muscles which
surround the eyeball, contracting to make the eye more elliptical
for near vision, or relaxing, allowing they eye to become more
spherical for far vision.
Well, O.K. This is certainly something I had
never thought about. But my mind is always open for the
contemplation of unusual thoughts. Perhaps it is true. An
interesting idea. Clicking about in the internet, I find that no
serious present-day specialist takes Bates' theory seriously. So I
assume that, contrary to what Bates writes, modern researchers have
actually measured the deformation of the lens when the eye changes
focus. Still, I can believe that those smooth muscles which surround
the eye do have some function or other, and that when the eye is
under strain, they produce deformations which affect vision.
In the book, Bates goes on and on about one case
after another of people whose vision he has miraculously and
instantaneously corrected. A medical doctor, or a university
professor, who has been wearing glasses for 40 years and whose
vision is 10/200 or something, shortsighted to the point of
blindness, astigmatic, blind in one eye due to cataracts, visits Dr.
Bates in his clinic. Bates tells his illustrious but visually
crippled patient that the problem is a matter of relaxation. The
patient covers his eyes with his hands, imagines what it would be
like to have perfect vision, then opens his eyes and is astonished
to discover that he has been cured! Vision is perfect. He throws
away his now useless glasses and emerges into the world as a new
The book has chapters with the titles: Memory as
an Aid to Vision, and Imagination as an Aid to Vision. All this
seemed to me to be a bit confusing. Does Bates mean that all of his
cured patients didn't really see better, rather they imagined they
did, utilizing their memories of what vision used to be like? He
then tells us that glaucoma also disappears with proper relaxation,
as do floating specks, or "floaters". But really, that is nonsense.
Glaucoma cannot be cured by relaxation. As for floaters, they may be
benign, but as I discovered a few years ago, if they increase
suddenly, the last thing you should do is relax. Instead you should
go to an ophthalmologist as quickly as possible since you probably
have internal bleeding into the eyeball.
Oh well. I did try a few of Bates' recommended
exercises, but unfortunately I was not miraculously and
instantaneously cured. My vision remained as nearsighted as ever.
Still, it is true that being nearsighted, I can comfortably read
without glasses, and there is a feeling of relaxation when doing so.
So at least this book has encouraged me to remove my glasses more
often when reading.
But why do so many of us wear glasses in this
modern world? The idea that nearsightedness is a genetic defect
doesn't make sense to me. It has been shown that the incidence of
nearsightedness is lower when children go out to play in the open
air in natural sunlight. The growth of the eye during childhood must
be influenced by such conditions. Growing up indoors, reading,
watching television, or computer screens, or smartphones. Doing
these things as a child, the eye becomes too big so that the focal
point given by the lens lies in front of the retina. A more natural
life, looking quickly at different things at different distances out
in the open, actively playing with other children; surely this is
the relaxation the eye needs and which will lead to perfect vision
later, in adult life.
This one is about the
sinking of the Lusitania in World War I. The Lusitania
was a large, very luxurious British trans-Atlantic steamer, capable
of traveling at 25 knots, from Liverpool to New York and back. On
the 7th of May, 1915, it was hit by a single torpedo, launched from
the German submarine, the U-20, sinking rapidly within 15 minutes.
Thus the judgement of J. Bernhard Walker,
citing the Lusitania as being a much safer ship when compared with
the Titanic (which took about 2 1/2 hours to sink) was proved to be
In a way, the comparison is unfair. Whereas the
Titanic sank during a cold night when everybody had their portholes
closed, the Lusitania was cruising along in sight of Ireland in
balmy spring weather, and so many of the passengers, defying any
sensible notion of caution under the wartime conditions and known
threats of danger, left their portholes open. The lowest row of such
portholes was a mere 15 feet above the waterline.
As everybody knows, war is horrible. And World
War I was particularly horrible. Millions of young people were being
forced into their various armies to be murdered, often under the
most degrading, painful circumstances imaginable. The justification
for this slaughter involved obscure problems in Serbia, and the wish
of the European powers to grab as many colonies in Africa and Asia
as possible. The aftermath of the slaughter, the recriminations, led
to World War II and an even greater slaughter. It is arguable that
if the world had not marched into World War I, then all those lost
lives under communism would not have occurred, and the rise of
nationalism might have been averted.
I suppose the most rational way to have killed
off all those millions of soldiers, a way which would have shown the
world what senseless horror it all was, would have been to have
simply lined them up and have them shot by firing squad. For this
you would need a few tens of millions of bullets and a reasonable
number of rifles. Indeed, the Lusitania was carrying many tons of
bullets deep within its bowels, along with large numbers of
artillery shell casings for the British version of the slaughter.
While the Lusitania was a British ship, in 1915
many American ships were also taking part in the arms trade. The
United States was neutral, but it was considered to be normal for
neutral countries to sell arms into Europe, making a nice profit.
They would have been equally happy to sell to Germany or to England.
But there was a problem.
Being an island, Great Britain has easy access to
the sea. Ports on the west coast such as Liverpool, or Cardiff, or
even Plymouth, were far away from the fighting. On the other hand, a
ship delivering arms to Germany had to travel through the English
Channel, or at least around Scotland and through the North Sea to
get to Hamburg or Bremen. Therefore it was easy for British warships
to identify and stop freighters traveling through these long
passages, examine them, and detain them if they carried munitions to
Germany. The English could say that they were conducting their
blockade in a civilized, peaceful fashion. How could Germany
maintain a similar blockade of England?
One possibility would have been to sink all
British warships, thus themselves ruling the waves and being able to
blockade England. However as the Battle of
Jutland showed, there were simply too many British ships. The
alternative was submarine warfare. This is not nice and civilized.
The submarine lurks underwater, out of sight. It launches its
torpedo, watches through a periscope as the ship sinks, the people
drown. It is too small to take aboard any survivors, and in any
case, to return to home port it must run the gauntlet through the
English Chanel, or the North Sea.
The situation aboard the Lusitania was clear to
everyone. Yet, as with the Titanic, it was full speed ahead into the
war zone. People pretended there was no danger, living it up on the
ship just as they would have done in peacetime, leaving their
This book goes into great detail, describing the
lives of some of the passengers, mainly those traveling in first
class. Of course it was a tragedy. But at least the author, Erik
Larson did hint at the larger picture.
The fact is that the British Admiralty had
completely cracked the German secret codes used for communications
between the ships and their bases on shore. Thus they were able to
follow the movements of the submarines in some detail. They knew
exactly where U-20 was in the days before the attack. And they
provided close escorts for their battleships which moved through the
area, using various tactics to avoid torpedoing. But they left the
Lusitania in the dark, cruising calmly into the danger, without
warning or escort. For the English, the sinking of the Lusitania was
just what was wanted in order to lure the United States into the war
- on the side of the English. Winston Churchill, the First Lord of
the Admiralty, was ecstatic. He expected the United States to join
the war immediately. But President Woodrow Wilson stood by his
principles of not engaging in this foreign European war. Thus it was
only two years later, in 1917, that the United States became
involved. Afterwards Churchill wrote bitterly of his disappointment
in his famous history of the war.
He was right. What is the value of a thousand
rich people traveling on a luxurious ocean liner when compared with
all the people to be slaughtered in those extra two years of war?
An unusual story. The
author, or at least the author of the story within the story, tells
us a tale about a post World War II England in which Germany has won
the war. Then in an election, or an upheaval or something, it became
communist. Difficult to imagine, but the point of the book is that
logic, or rather a lack of it, might exist in the physical world.
For this, Andrew Crumey tells us that he is the holder of a Ph.D. in
theoretical physics, where chaos reigns.
The scene of an automobile accident on a dark,
rainy night keeps being retold with different permutations. Also the
scene of a young man sitting alone on a train, reading a book, where
a beautiful young woman comes and sits down in the seat opposite
undergoes many permutations. Sometimes she says nothing. Sometimes
she and the young man discuss all their innermost feelings, but then
as the train arrives, they depart without telling each other their
names. Later in life the man imagines what a perfect partner for
life he has lost.
I enjoyed the book despite the chaos. Gradually a
more or less coherent story emerged. And as with East Germany, which
suffered a similar fate, England emerges from communism, with its
all-pervading, NSA-style spying on people, into a more happy future.
According to the story, The
Secret Knowledge is the title of a piece of music for piano,
written by the composer Pierre Klauer in the year 1913.
Things start off with a little meeting between
Pierre and his sweetheart, Yvette, in a Parisian amusement park.
After asking her to marry him, Pierre walks off, telling Yvette to
wait five minutes, as a kind of test. Then he apparently blows his
We skip to the modern world. David Conroy, a
deranged teacher of piano in a music college gives a recital.
Somebody comes up afterward and gives him the manuscript of the
unknown piano piece The Secret Knowledge. Another scene. The
beautiful, innocent young music student, Paige, comes to Conroy's
room at the college to begin taking lessons with him. She plays one
thing and another. He is impressed and gives her the middle movement
of The Secret Knowledge to prepare for the next lesson.
The scene skips back to the year 1921, and we
learn that Pierre Klauer didn't shoot himself after all. He is now
in London. Back and forth between the lovely Paige and something in
France in 1940 and the Gestapo, New York in 1941, Frankfurt in
Germany in 1967. There is an old book containing undecipherable
symbols and formulas. Various philosophers who were mixed up
together in real life: Theodor
Benjamin, Hannah Arendt
have something to do with the book, which has something to do with The
Secret Knowledge. Where is all this leading? What is the
The end is a disappointing anticlimax. Andrew
Crumey, with his Ph.D. in theoretical physics and his elegant style
of writing has followed modern fashion by dabbling in philosophy.
It turns out that The Secret Knowledge is
nothing more than the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum
Mechanics. A popular idea. In the version of Andrew Crumey, the way
to go is to risk your life, leading to various possible outcomes. In
one world, you blow your brains out. But in another world you
survive and emerge into a land of fairy tales and wonder. Then you
can repeat the process. How wonderful it would be to ride high on a
succession of successful worlds, avoiding disaster.
Physics in the distant past was other-worldly,
lost in the dogmas of Aristotle, wallowing in its erudite falseness.
Then, beginning in the renaissance period, physics gradually emerged
from its befuddled philosophical state. Should physics in the modern
world return to that other-worldly thinking of the past?
Looking for something
interesting to read, I came across the review in the Guardian where
it is said that this book was read by President Obama who declared
it to be the best he had read in the year 2015. The review also
mentioned the fact(?) that most readers of fiction are women, thus
posing the question of why Obama would appear to pander to the
women's vote despite the fact that he was no longer eligible to be
It's a long book. If Obama is as slow as I am at
reading, then he certainly took a great deal of time off from his
presidential duties in order to follow the story.
It is about the marriage of Mathilda to Lotto.
The hero's real name is Lancelot, but he has been given the
endearing name Lotto for some reason, a word which is normally
associated with lotteries. The book has two contrasting halves: the
first half, Fates, is the story told from the perspective of Lotto,
and the second half, Furies, from the perspective of his wife,
Mathilda. The prose in the first half is disjointed, hectic,
unpleasant to read. But the second half became more coherent.
Perhaps the author, who in her internet site has included a photo
of herself which appears at such a high level of resolution that
each of the hairs on her head, or her eyebrows, and indeed, her eyes
themselves, can be examined in detail, is more comfortable when
seeing things from the female point of view.
But to get down to the basics, the story is
concerned in the main with Lotto's sexual life. Was Lauren Groff
writing for an audience of middle-aged, American females? We are
told that Lotto was immensely tall, warm, wonderful, kind-hearted,
honest, full of goodness, so that all the women in the story
immediately wanted to sleep with him; a wish which he was always
happy to fulfill. And so the first half of the book is filled with
disjointed narrations of endless parties where countless females
with whom he has coupled, yet not impregnated, come and go. They are
frustrated by the fact that he has chosen Mathilda as the constant
partner for his bed and all the other places where they do it. But
after many years of this, he has also failed to impregnate Mathilda,
causing him great frustration. In the intervals between these
episodes he tries - unsuccessfully - to become an actor on the
stage. But then, after years of failure, Mathilda discovers that he
is a great playwright. He becomes world famous, celebrated by young
and old. The author goes into the plots of some of his plays, giving
us snippets of the occasional dialogue. It is, of course, in the
main concerned with the various modes of human sexuality. But what
we read of his imaginary playwrighting ability was totally
unconvincing, sharing the awkward, disjointed style of the rest of
the narration. I was wondering what Obama saw in the book. Did he
really read it? And why was I continuing?
Then the Furies part begins. Mathilda's
perspective. We learn that she is not the pure, angelic figure Lotto
had imagined in the first half. A complicated story. As a four year
old toddler, she murders her baby brother by throwing him down the
stairs. This is in France where she was born. She is then banned
from the family and shipped off to Paris to a distant relative, a
woman who works as a prostitute. From there she is shipped off to
America, to an uncle who is some sort of mafiosi. Thankfully he
doesn't force her into prostitution, letting her live unmolested in
his large mafia mansion full of locked rooms. But at the end of her
school time he kicks her out, without money, curious to see what she
will make of life. She hooks up with an older man who finances her
college education, in return for which she provides degrading sexual
services on the weekends. She keeps all of this secret from Lotto
and everybody else.
In view of the many euphoric reviews of this
book, and indeed from Obama's opinion, I see that taste in modern
American literature has apparently progressed beyond my
As a final note, the occasional dog makes its
appearance in the story (although no explicit dog couplings are
described, which seems a bit unfair). When excited, most dogs bark.
But in Lauren Groff's narration, each time a dog is excited, it
"screams". How strange. Of all the many sounds I have heard dogs
making, I have never yet heard a scream.
by Vladimir Nabakov
It's nice to read a well
written book for a change! Nabakov's sentences just roll on and on,
from one droll remark to the next. And we follow his Russian emigres
as they inhabit the small-town colleges of Middle America in the
1950s, having escaped the ravages of the Bolsheviks in the 20s and
then lived in Paris until the Nazis took over.
Our hero, Pnin, lives precariously, untenured,
rooming in the house of one or the other faculty members, here and
there, year after year. But in his mind he is still in his beloved
Russia, meeting his Russian friends, his estranged Russian wife who
left him all those years ago in Paris, hoarding all the Russian
language books in the library. Even after ten years in America and
having acquired American citizenship, his command of the English
language is rudimentary, the object of universal ridicule. In the
end, his protector, Dr. Hagen, the chair of the German department,
receives an offer of a position at a more prestigious university,
leaving things to Pnin's enemies. And so we see him driving off, out
of town, into an uncertain future, lost in America.
All of the characters are literary types. The
English department, the German department, and the French department
whose chair we are told is occupied by a character who is totally
ignorant of the French language and yet who, nevertheless, is the
most successful organizer of grant money in the college. We hear
nothing of the sciences, or mathematics. Were they also represented
in these small-town colleges?
I vaguely remember an acquaintance of the family
back in New Jersey when I was a child. He was a Russian emigre who
had taught physics at the University of California, but he had lost
his job during the McCarthy purges of those days. He spoke English
This one is about a man who
is in the insurance business. A "loss adjuster", if such a thing
really does exist in real life. It seems that the business of a loss
adjuster is to go in after somebody has made a claim on the
insurance and tell them that they are cheating - something is fishy
- and so the insurance won't be paid out. The poor claimant then
gets angry and the loss adjuster suggests that he take some
diminished share of the actual contracted insurance in order to
avoid further fuss. Thus the security which we had thought that we
were buying with insurance is shown to be an illusion. Life remains
insecure. We are not really protected.
The story takes place in London, with the
characters driving from one address to the next along this and that
road which can be followed via Google Maps. But I soon gave up on
this tedious exercise, just letting all the names of the London
streets, parks, places, and what have you, glide by into oblivion.
The hero gets involved in a complicated and
dangerous financial scandal which I only vaguely understood. An
over-insured hotel under construction experiences a fire caused by a
subcontractor afraid of falling behind schedule and thus being
subjected to a fine. Our loss adjuster offers less than half the
insurance, and the offer is - suspiciously - immediately accepted.
Then comes a take-over of the firm constructing the hotel by some
other firm, and the half-completed hotel is torn down at much
greater expense for some reason. I missed the logic here.
Anyway, during all of this, the hero gets invited
to various seemingly absurd parties put on by the mega-rich people
who, for some reason or another, seem to congregate in London these
days. Does William Boyd have personal experience of these degenerate
happenings? It is difficult for me to imagine that such people do
behave in the ways described. But who knows? perhaps the story is
true to life. And as always with these books of William Boyd, it was
an enjoyable read.
This book is about marathon
running. In a way, the whole idea of the marathon is
somewhat strange and obscure. The first modern Olympics was held in
Athens in 1896, and the organizers thought it might be an
interesting idea to have a long distance foot race, based on the
legend of the ancient Athenian runner, Pheidippides,
who was supposed to have run from the town of Marathon,
where the Greek army defeated the Persians in 480 BC, back to Athens
to tell the people the result of the battle, expiring at the end.
It appears that Pheidippides was, in fact, a
professional runner in those days. Perhaps he ran all the way to
Sparta and back in order to ask the Spartans to join in the battle
(they refused!), covering 240 km in just two days. A tremendous
feat. But modern scholarship casts doubt on the marathon story. It
may be that the true story is that the Athenian army,
battle-wearied, marched quickly from Marathon back to Athens to
defend the city from a possible invasion by the Persian fleet,
covering the distance weighed down with full armor and equipment in
only 5 or 6 hours. Also a most impressive athletic feat.
The 1896 version of the marathon was about 40 km,
give or take a km or two. The Paris Olympics also had a marathon,
which was rather a debacle. The organizers of the 1908 Olympics in
London threw out numbers obscure, silly competitions, but for some
reason decided to retain the marathon run. In order that the British
Royal Family could have a nice view of the start, the run began
beneath the palace windows, and it was declared that the total
distance was exactly 26 miles and 385 yards. Later measurements
showed that the actual course in fact deviated from this figure by
some hundred yards, or something. But this obscure distance became
the official measure for the marathon.
In metric terms, this became 42.195 km. Now, if
people had just chosen a nice round number, such as 40 km, or 25
miles (which is just a shade more than 40 km), then strong runners
would be able to finish within two hours. It would be like the mile
run today. Back in the 1930s and 40s and into the 50s, people said
that the 4-minute mile was impossible. Yet in 1954, soon after Sir
Edmund Hillary conquered Mr. Everest, Sir Roger Bannister conquered
the 4-minute mile. These days the mile is well and truly smashed,
with Hicham El Guerrouj's time of 3:43.12 thoroughly pulverizing the
4-minute barrier. In fact, the mile is seldom run now. It is an
obscure distance, a bit longer than the standard 1500 meter run.
Hardly anybody is interested. But the much more obscure marathon
distance continues to tantalize the world. Can it be run in 2 hours?
I've been jogging more or less regularly for the
last 50 years, never being very fast. These days I might run for a
half hour a couple of times a week, becoming exhausted. I did take
part in the only marathon which has been run here in the town of
Bielefeld, about 30 years ago. (Subsequent attempts to organize a
marathon were stymied by the local taxi drivers who felt that it was
a hindrance to their trade.) I was impressed by the fact that many
members of the British Forces in northern Germany were also taking
part, and I enjoyed listening to their pleasant words of
encouragement to one another. I made the mistake of beginning too
quickly, and after 25 or 30 km, I felt dead. But I did manage to
walk on to the end, finishing in some dismal time. That was enough
This book describes the great East African
runners who dominate the marathon these days. The author
particularly spent much time with Geoffrey Mutai,
who was the strongest runner in the years 2011-12, when the author
was writing the book. There is a short video
of his running, in slow motion. He seems to float effortlessly
through the air. Such a contrast with the heavy, plodding motions of
lesser people. He is one of many East Africans pursuing this
"sport". But for them it is a serious business.
There is big money, great success for the
winners. Behind Geoffrey Mutai, or Haile Gebrselassie, or the
current world record holder, Dennis Kimetto, whose time was 2:02.57,
at the start of one of the classic city marathons - London, New
York, Berlin - are tens of thousands of runners, hoping to make it
to the end. The marathon is a modern myth, a personal challenge. A
Mt. Everest for everyone. And this is where the money is. For
example, you need to buy new running shoes at least once a year, and
they normally cost 150 euros or so, per pair. (I had been buying
ASICS shoes, but just this week I got a very comfortable pair of New
Balance shoes which were on offer for just 99 euros.)
Ed Caesar goes into the question of why these
East Africans are so totally dominant. He shows that there are a
number of factors. To be a great marathon runner, you should come
from a tribe of people who previously lived in the lowlands, but
then a few generations ago moved to the highlands. (For example,
Tibetans are ruled out since, although they live at altitude, their
bodies are genetically adopted to this, allowing them to survive
with no more red blood cells than lowlanders. But lowlanders who
move to the highlands must produce an overabundance of red blood
cells, giving added endurance, but thickening the blood, thus
increasing the risk of coronary disease.) You should be born at
altitude; it is not enough to simply move there to get into
training. You should run all day as a child, barefoot, on dirt
roads, giving you flexible, springy feet. You should live on a poor
farm, eating simple food, perhaps being occasionally beaten by a
violent, drunken father, giving you the knowledge that life is tough
(this according to both Geoffrey Mutai and Haile Gebrselassie). But
then, in addition to all that, the author observes that the special
tribe of the Kalenjin in the Rift Valley area of Kenya have
particularly long, slender legs, just made for long distance
running. On the other hand, he notes that some American Indian
tribes in the South West of the United States might also produce
similarly successful marathon runners if the motivation was there.
Will anyone ever run a two hour marathon? Ten or
fifteen years ago I thought this was as impossible as, say, the
3:30-minute mile, which certainly is impossible. But now Kimetto has
gotten to within 3 minutes of the goal. These records are achieved
with pacemakers, running ahead, forming a shield just in front of
the champion, reducing the effect of air resistance. For normal
athletic competitions, that would be considered cheating. Special
shoes are made for the individual runners, at great expense. And
what about doping? Just today in the news it is said that a champion
woman marathon runner from Kenya has been found to have doped with
EPO, the drug that increases the density of red blood cells still
further. But in the end, with all this, somebody is bound to conquer
the two hour marathon. A strangely obscure, random distance which
just happens to be what was thought to be the distance from a window
at Windsor Castle to the royal box at the White City Stadium
(including a round of the stadium) in 1908 in London.
by Richard Ford
The narrator, Dell Parsons,
tells us about what happened to him when he was 15 years old, a
quiet, shy, introspective teenager. Things which disrupted his life
completely. This takes place in the year 1960 in the town of Great
Falls Montana. His father had been in the air force, dropping bombs
in World War II, and he stayed on, moving from one airbase to
another throughout the country, having the rank of captain. Just
after the war, in a feeling of triumphant euphoria, being together
with a girl after a dance, she became pregnant, and so they married
despite the fact that they were totally different people. Despite
this, Dell and his twin sister had the feeling that life was normal
and their parents were loving and sensible. But they had no friends
since they had moved so often, from one air force base to another.
Dell's father lost his job in the air force owing
to a few underhanded dealings becoming known. At loose ends, he
tried his hand at one thing and another. Dell's mother had found a
job as a teacher at a local school. But his father, having the
feeling that his service in the war entitled him to more than this,
gradually decided to rob a bank. Over in North Dakota. Richard Ford
devotes at least half the book to the description of all of this.
The feelings Dell has for things. His ambitions. His views about his
father and mother, and his sister. The town of Great Falls. The
normalcy of everything.
His parents made a poor business or their amateur
bank robbery. Within a day or two, the police appeared and soon the
parents were taken away to jail.
What is this situation like for a 15 year old
boy? What does it feel like when suddenly the whole basis of your
life is taken away? For a day or two the children are left alone.
They visit their parents in prison. Will the juvenile authorities of
Montana come and take them away somewhere? To some institution for
orphans? Or a foster home where they might be treated dreadfully? Or
will they even be treated as juvenile delinquents, sent to some
But the mother had arranged for an acquaintance
at her school to take them away before the juvenile authorities
arrived. She was to drive them up into Canada, to the brother of the
acquaintance, Arthur Reminger, living in some small town well north
of the border.
We read about what it is like to be driven into
the unknown. Alone (Dell's sister had run away before this). Cut
off. Put into the hands of strange, unpleasant people. A rude,
primitive life of cleaning Reminger's dilapidated hotel; living
alone in a broken-down hovel a mile or more out of town; organizing
things for the drunken "Sports", coming for a weekend of geese
shooting from Toronto, or from south of the border; talking to the
prostitutes working at the hotel.
We gradually learn that Arthur Reminger also has
a secret past. He is an elegant man, strangely elegant for the owner
of such a hotel of ill-repute. And things come to a crisis. Another,
even worse crime. But in the end Arthur's girlfriend arranges that
Dell escape to Winnipeg where her brother lives. Here the narration
stops. Life becomes normal again. Dell tells us that he goes to
school in Winnipeg, becomes a Canadian citizen, marries a wonderful
Canadian woman and lives a fulfilling life up to now, when he is
writing his story.
He never again meets, or has any contact
whatsoever with his parents. His sister has lived a degenerate,
drug-filled life in California, and at the end of the book he
travels there to meet her, finding her almost crippled, in pain, the
late stages of cancer. She tells him that their parent's absurd bank
robbery had ruined her life, but for Dell it was, in the end, just
an interesting episode which didn't really change anything.
A powerful, absorbing book, very different from
the author's Frank Bascombe novels.
The reason I thought to read
this book is that in the previous one, Canada, by Richard Ford,
towards the end, a number of books were mentioned as being good
descriptions of life suddenly changing, becoming chaotic. I had read
the other ones, but this book was new to me. And looking it up, I
found that various literary journals included it in their lists of
the 100 greatest novels of some category or another. Also the
Bowles, had an interesting life, as a mature man living in
Morocco but doing much traveling, being acquainted with all the
famous literary personalities of his time, close to the composer
Arron Copland and himself becoming a well-known composer.
The book was written in 1947 and the story takes
place in Algeria, then a colony of France. We have three young, more
or less bored Americans, arriving by ship with the intention of
exploring the Sahara desert. Port (the man) and Kit (the woman) are
married, and Tunner (also a man) is a friend. They each stay in
separate hotel rooms, meeting rather formally to complain about
everything, including one another.
A strange mother and son appear, driving a
powerful Mercedes. It turns out that they later steal Port's
passport in order to sell it on the black market, raising some
money. This seemed to me to be somewhat incongruous, since you could
hardly maintain a large Mercedes, especially in 1947, on the money
obtained by the occasional passport theft. Anyway, they offer to
transport Port and Kit to the next desert town in the comfort of
their Mercedes, but not Tunner, who must make do with the primitive
Algerian rail system. Kit refuses the offer, and so Port goes alone
with the Mercedes people and Kit and Tunner travel together by rail,
during which Tunner more or less rapes Kit in their first class -
but primitive - cabin. Kit is repelled, and yet also attracted to
Tunner, at least given the absence of Port. But upon arrival in the
town and meeting up with Port who has again arranged three separate
rooms, Kit mediates on the superiority of Port in comparison with
All of this seemed very strange. How many young
married couples take separate hotel rooms? And all of this chaos of
each of them going off in one direction or another, leaving the
others in the lurch. Reading the Wikipedia version of the life of
the author, I see that he was homosexual, or at least bisexual, and
his wife Jane
Bowles was as well. Thus they lived more or less together,
seeking fulfillment outside marriage. Well, yes. I suppose that
could be a sensible relationship, even based on a deep love for one
But to return to the story, Port suddenly decides
to travel on to the next town, and he rushes Kit into the bus in the
middle of the night with Tunner lost in some other town. During the
long night drive, Port begins to get sick. It is typhoid fever.
A very unpleasant condition in 1947 - before the advent of
antibiotics. Port is almost unconscious upon arrival, but the only
hotel, or hostel, is locked to avoid infection. They suddenly find
themselves in an open truck, lying on sacks of potatoes, traveling
through the next night to the next town. Nobody speaks a language
they can understand. Upon arrival the unpleasant French officer at
the fort puts them in a room where Kit tries to nurse Port back to
life. But he dies. And she seems to go crazy.
Then we have the third, and last part, of the
book. Kit runs out of town into the desert in the night. The next
day she sees a camel caravan approaching and hitches a ride. The two
men in charge alternately rape her, but she falls in love with one
of them. She cannot speak their language. After weeks of this, the
caravan arrives in a town and Kit is led forcefully into into a huge
house where she is installed in a closed room with bed, apart from
the other wives, subject to the continuous sexual attentions of her
lover, or oppressor. She escapes, but then tries to run away rather
than being led to the French authorities and civilization.
Eventually she is transported by force back to Algiers and the
American Consul in a mentally deranged state, escaping at the end of
the book into the night. We are not told of her fate. Will she
become a faceless prostitute somewhere in the backwaters of Algiers?
The book made little sense to me. But this is
true of many other things as well.
This one is about the
Russian composer, Shostakovitch. It is presented as being an
historical novel, but in reality it is a kind of biography where we
are taken through the various stages of the life of the hero. Unlike
a serious biography in which all - or at least most - statements are
supported by detailed references, here the biographer is concerned
with imagining what the hero thought and felt, independently of any
concrete evidence as to such details.
And so - as a biography - I found the book to be
interesting. As we all know, Shostakovitch felt his life to be in
danger, threatened by Stalin to be killed, tortured, transported to
a Siberian death camp. Before reading the book I had no idea what
Stalin had against him. After all, in the 1930s millions of people
were sent through the communist torture chambers and on to the death
camps of Siberia for no apparent reason.
Under Stalin, the mere act of making music was
not considered sufficient grounds for liquidating people. In fact it
is said that he actually liked listening to music - in rather the
same way that Hitler liked listening to all those Richard Wagner
operas. Shostakovitch's mistake was to write an opera which
celebrated not the mysteries of those nebulous Germanic heroes of
old, but rather the bucolic life of the heroic Russian communist
worker. The opera was a success, and so Stalin attended a
performance, finding the music to be not to his taste. He instructed
his secret police to make life difficult for Shostakovitch, but not
to kill him, thus sending the message to all composers that they
must write things which Stalin might prefer.
Well, we have a subscription to Google Play
Music, and thus it is possible to listen to recordings of
practically everything there is. Thus when reading this book I let
the computer play through numbers of Shostakovitch symphonies; they
soon irritated me.
In fact I remember that the only time I ever
attended a concert in the Royal Albert Hall in London, at least 30
years ago, they played a Shostakovitch symphony. We were sitting
right up at the top. It was loud, but I remember thinking that
perhaps it represented the anguish of communist Russia and the
suffering of World War II. Or something.
But now I seem to have simply outgrown all of
this symphonic music. On the other hand, in the book, Julian Barnes
has his Shostakovitch continually comparing himself to Stravinsky,
who had escaped communism to live a free life in the West. And so I
let the computer play through some of Stravinsky's beautiful music:
the Firebird, Petrushka, Apollon Musagète...
As a student I used to listen endlessly to my records of these
things. But Shostakovitch? How can one compare him to this?
Shostakovitch was required to write lots of music
for the movies (such as they were under communism). Quite frankly I
think that most film music, at least of the background, symphonic
kind, is simply irritating, often spoiling a good movie. What a
contrast to such things as the songs of Simon and Garfunkel in The
Graduate, or the music in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Under fascism or communism, painters painted
ridiculous scenes of the imagined heroic life of the farm laborer or
the factory worker. Sculptors created absurd images of the peasant
He-Man. And also composers were forced to create some sort of music
which conformed with the tastes of their leaders.
For me these Shostakovitch symphonies sound like
the hectic sound tracks of action movies which have gone completely
out of control, and so I feel sad for him. Was it a wasted life? I
wonder whether if he had been born a bit earlier and thus had the
opportunity to escape to the freedom of the West, that he might have
been able to compose music approaching the quality of Stravinsky.
Yet another book based on
the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics! What is this
world coming to? In fact, at the end of the book, the author, Blake
Crouch, lists a number of people who are supposed to be serious
physicists, bringing them in to all of this nonsense. Does he imply
that he actually consulted these people and got them to agree to his
using their names? In fact he does drag somebody by the name of
"Clifford Johnson, Ph.D." very specifically into this.
The story has to do with the "Schrödinger Cat"
business. If you put a cat in a box and wait a while, then if you
later take a look, you will find that it is either alive or dead, or
at least more dead than alive, or alive than dead. Perhaps being
executed, or not, according to whether or not a particular atom
decays - thus transporting us into the usual nebulous realms of the
Very Small - where people think quantum mechanics applies - and
linking this to something big, like a cat. It all has to do with
"collapsing wave functions". According to the "Copenhagen
Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics", the waves of quantum mechanics
only collapse, rendering something observable, when somebody makes
an observation. (People who are prepared to think clearly will find
that such things do not really need not be invoked in order to
understand quantum mechanics.)
But the premise of the present book is that you
can get into a box which is somehow totally isolated from the rest
of the world (which is nonsense), then take a drug which turns off
the observing parts of the brain, observing(?) then that the box
becomes an infinite tunnel with infinitely many doors, each of which
leads to a different possible future branching off from the point
where you entered the box. In order to make such ideas sound serious
and mysterious, which perhaps the words "Many Worlds" does not do,
people have now invented a new word - "multiverse".
This is surely some sort of contradiction in language, since the
definition of the word "universe"
is everything that there is.
It all becomes a strange story in which a man is
dragged into the box and injected with the drug, ending up in some
other world. He then tries desperately to get back to his familiar
world with his wife and child. But then, somehow, other versions of
himself split apart and also try to return. They all end up fighting
each other. This reminded me of the real-life horror stories of
fathers who lose their families when their wives go off with other
men. They then murder not the man who has seduced the wife, but
rather their own children and then themselves.
So the book was, in a way, similar to a
time-machine story, but with these twists into the "multiverse" of
different worlds. Amusing. If I had known what it was really about,
I wouldn't have bought it in the first place. The trouble was the
very positive amazon.com reviews by all those fantasy fiction fans.
The author recently turned
80, and to honor this event various news sites wrote articles about
him. His name only vaguely struck a bell somewhere in my
consciousness and so, given the adulation all of these news media
were devoting to him - and indeed, given the length of his Wikipedia
article (comparable to that of Shakespeare) - I was led to
order one of his books via Amazon to read on my Kindle.
Wading through the Wikipedia text, I see that his
most celebrated novel is "Gravity's Rainbow". It is said to be so
dense that various lesser
authors have seen fit to publish reader's guides to aid the
reader through the difficult intellectual challenge represented by
the book. Rather in the style of the Classic Comics which, as a
student in high school, I found to be a godsend when required to
write one of those dreadful book reviews. And so, thinking to avoid
such things and seeing that some Amazon reviewers declared the
present book to be the most easily accessible of Pynchon's novels, I
But to be honest, I was only able to reach the
23rd percentage point of the book before giving up. There seems to
be no Classical Comic version available in order to find out what
happens, or indeed, to understand what happened in the first 23% of
the book. I do see that they recently made a Hollywood movie of the
book, and it received two Oscar nominations. But I didn't see that
The book is concerned with various degenerate
types living in Southern California during the 1960s. The dialog is
filled with so much obscure slang and apparent references to things
I know nothing about that it was for me barely comprehensible. What
I was able to comprehend seemed banal and boring.
Many people consider Thomas Pynchon to be one of
the greatest writers who ever lived. Who am I to contradict this,
given that I have only managed to make it through 23% of his most
accessible book? He apparently lives the life of a recluse in some
rarefied, ethereal sphere, removed from the normal world of
simple-minded people like me.
A fascinating book with many
ideas which often made me think about things in a new light. For
example the book begins by describing the situation 70,000 years ago
when "our" version of humanity began to assert itself. Back then,
there were at least three other versions of humanity, that is,
subspecies of the genus Homo: the Neanderthals, the Denisovans, and
and perhaps a few others as well. It is unclear how closely related
they all were to our version of humanity. Could people from our line
of descent interbreed with them to produce viable offspring, or
would the products be like the mule, an infertile cross between a
horse and a donkey? Certainly it is known that Neanderthals did
interbreed with the non-African population of modern humanity. Their
brains were, on average, even bigger than ours.
Neanderthals occupied modern Eurasia for hundreds
of thousands of years. Yet in all this time, the artifacts we have
from them hardly changed. They kept on making the same stone tools
for all those hundreds of thousands of years, millennia after
millennia. This is a huge amount of time. To put it into
perspective: in astrology, an "Age" is
related to the 12 signs of the Zodiac. The period of the presession
of the Earth's axis is about 26,000 years, and thus an
astrological age is just over 2,000 years long. The world's
"eternal" religions are tied to these ages: Christianity is Pisces
(the fish), Judaism is Aries (the ram), ancient Greek religion was
Taurus (the Bull), and so forth, going back in time from one age to
the next. For us, just one such "age" is immeasurably long. Most
people cannot trace their ancestors back through more than a tiny
fraction of a just a single age. One period of the Earth's
pressession represents 12 such ages. Yet the Neanderthals lived on
for 20 or 30 such unimaginably long cycles. Doing what? No artwork,
apart from a few random scratches in a cave in Gibraltar is known.
How can we understand this? Did they have language? What were they
thinking with their large brains? Nothing? Or were they living in a
timeless paradise, profoundly satisfied with life, seeing no reason
to "advance" themselves? Totally uninterested in making scratches on
Harari advances the theory that we distinguish
ourselves from those other versions of humanity by living in a world
of myths. In the time before 70,000 years ago, none of the versions
of humanity were able to think about myths. Abstract storytelling,
imagining things which are untrue. Then perhaps suddenly - a genetic
mutation? - modern people developed the capacity for myth-making.
I'm not sure if I follow him on this. As Daniel Everett
showed, the Piraha tribe in South America is a tribe of modern
humans, but they do not have myths. They consider abstract stories
to be totally incomprehensible. It was impossible to explain to them
the concept of numbers. Perhaps this is an example of a people of
our species living as the Neanderthals did, in a timeless paradise,
free of the ambitions which plague the rest of us.
But Harari goes on to show just how much we have
become the products of our myths. Of course there is religion. As he
explains it, such myths are necessary in order to allow large
numbers of people who do not know each other personally to live
together peacefully. Thinking about the myths of various present-day
religions, he proposes a practical definition for the word
"religion". We imagine that in the modern, sophisticated world,
religion is dead. But it has been replaced by new religions:
nationalism, capitalism, communism, fascism, and so forth. Thus the
greatest, most destructive, most cruel wars of religion occurred in
the last century, not in the middle ages.
Our civilization is held together with myths.
Common myths which everybody believes in, for without such belief
society would fall apart. For example the myth of money. After all,
gold is an almost totally useless metal. It does have some practical
applications in electrical appliances. Also it can be used for
filling teeth cavities (although modern porcelain fillings might be
superior). And the pieces of paper which are used as money have, of
course, practically no intrinsic value. This is the reason that the
bank robber, or the counterfeiter is so severely punished, often
more so even than a man-slaughterer. Society cannot tolerate the
myth of money being brought into question.
Harari tells us that the prosperity of modern
society is due to the development of fractional reserve banking. Is
this true? Perhaps. But I can't see how the present system of
monetary inflation, zero-interest debt expanding into an
unprecedented debt bubble, can be sustained for much longer.
On the other hand, it is interesting to imagine
how humanity transformed itself from a hunter-gatherer society to an
agricultural society 10,000 years ago. It is often said that the
lives of primitive cave-men were miserable, but is that true? There
are still a few tribes of people living in Australia and South-West
Africa following this way of living. They have hundreds of different
sources of healthy food. In a dry spell, or a wet spell, there are
always various foods to eat and they only require a couple of hours
a day to look for them. (I'm just now thinking about the unpleasant
drive to the supermarket which I have to get done with this morning.
It also takes an hour or two. But at least I can gather enough food
to last for a few days, thanks to our refrigerator.) For the
hunter-gatherer there is never famine, little disease. The
indigenous people of Australia also lived in an almost unchanging
world for tens of thousands of years, but at least they did express
their modern humanity by covering the landscape with their art and
telling one another dream-like myths.
Contrast this with the farmer in all those
thousands of years before the invention of powered machinery.
Working from dawn to dusk. Afraid of drought, insect pests, weeds,
recurring periods of famine, overpopulation, invasion by neighboring
tribes. Living together in crowded, filthy hovels, suffering from
endemic diseases. Thankfully, modern society lets machines do the
work, and hopefully, in the future, robots can be used to eradicate
weeds rather than spraying poison all over the place as is the
So why is it that people became agriculturists?
Harari explains the steps which led people to domesticate wheat,
rice, maize and so on. Each small step seemed to be a logical,
sensible thing to do. But in the end, one can say that these obscure
forms of grass have domesticated us. From the point of view of the
"selfish gene", wheat has been overwhelmingly successful, dominating
the planet and forcing humans to nurture it with loving care.
- But that is not to say that I am unhappy with
life, living in a house, buying food with pieces of paper which come
out of a money machine.
And what does Harari think of the future? Of
course there is the recent phenomenon of the internet. I enjoy
writing this stuff here, and reading all sorts of more or less crazy
things which other people write on the internet. But I am certainly
not dominated by my smartphone. It's an old one which was given to
me when the first androids came out. Google or Samson or whoever it
is that is responsible for updates has long ago refused to have
anything more to do with it. Hardly any of the current "apps" can be
downloaded. But it still works perfectly well for the occasional
phone call. Otherwise I leave it in "airplane mode" so - at least I
believe - it is incapable of being used by the CIA to spy on me. In
fact apart from this, I only use the instrument tuner function in
order to tune the viol, and also the calendar function to keep track
of appointments. I also carry it with me when driving so that if
somebody crashes into our car, then I can take some pictures of the
damage for the insurance. I have never even seen what the apparently
ubiquitous Facebook looks like. Is it so wonderful to be
continuously chatting with people who are not here? (Although Harari
says that gossip is the main function of language and the reason
that language was invented. It is essential for the coherence of the
tribe. - But on the other hand, wolves, chimpanzees and many other
types of animals are able to maintain their tribes in a coherent
state without an elaborate language, so I'm not sure that I follow
the author here either.)
Students of science look down upon those ignorant
people who believe every word they find in their Bibles and thus
believe in something they call "intelligent design". The thing -
whatever it is - they associate with the word "God" is supposed to
have designed all the details of the living organisms here on the
Earth. But now we have arrived at the situation that humanity is
gradually being able to design life by constructing variations of
the DNA molecule. We have now become "God", and in the future we
will actively pursue the intelligent(?) design of life on the Earth,
starting with ourselves.
by Min Kym
The author is a Korean
violin virtuoso whose Stradivarius violin was stolen in a London
railroad cafe. She tells us about the devastating effect this has
had on her life. When reading the book, I looked about the internet
to find videos of her playing in order to see what she is like. I
could only find one or two short excerpts, for example here, a
snippet from her recording of the Beethoven violin concerto. This
was before her Stradivarius was stolen. What a contrast with, say, this video
of David Garret playing around with a collection of Stradivari.
Or perhaps more relevant would be Hilary Hahn who
has allowed many full-length videos to be freely streamed in the
internet, for example here.
Hilary Hahn defies convention by playing a violin which is not a
Stradivarius. Nor is it a Guarneri or an Amati. Instead it is a 19th
century copy (by Jean-Baptiste
Vuillaume) of Paganini's Cannone violin.
In fact, after Min Kym lost her Stradivarius she
obtained another one, which was said to be one of Stradivarius'
best, however somewhere along the line in the 19th century, its top
was smashed and was then replaced. Could this repair have been by
Vuillaume himself? But for Min Kym, it was nothing. A
disappointment. A break with the true love of her life.
Stradivarius! The pure, unadulterated master. At the end of the book
she tells us that she is now trying to make do with an Amati.
Well, OK. But to be quite frank, the thought of
Hilary Hahn seems to me to be more appealing. Her instrument has
probably cost only a tenth, or less, as much as these Stradivari.
Still a lot, but not such a big deal. Not life-threatening. And
listen to the sound she can produce! But still...
The author of our book tells us much about her
life. It is almost an autobiography. When she was very young her
father was assigned by his Korean company to work in their offices
in Libya. Thinking it would be inappropriate for the family to also
live there, the wife and two daughters took up residence in London,
so that Min Kym grew up as an English woman. But at home, and when
visiting the family in Korea, she experienced very different
standards. Family was everything, everything else was nothing.
Respect for the elders. She tells us that she was even expected to
ask her mother before she was allowed to drink a glass of water! And
so the book is filled with her stories of how obedient she is.
Always following the instructions of others. Never being allowed to
question. And this goes for her music as well.
Such a contrast with say Nigel Kennedy with his
punk clothes and haircut, and forays into jazz. Or David Garret who
stumbled when walking off the stage, falling on his Stradivarius
violin, crunching all of its fragile wood, probably ruining it in
spite of a £60,000 repair job. And I'm sure he smiled afterwards.
Min Kym becomes quite personal. Describing her
relationship with Matt. A few seconds of googling brings up Matthew Huber,
who now works as a London dealer for the New York based firm of
Tarisio. She describes him as being overbearing, jealous. And she
describes the scene in the cafe at London's Euston station where
they are waiting for a train to travel together to Matt's place in
Manchester. She is feeling tired, a bit sick. She holds the violin
in its case tightly, as ever. Matt tells her to relax. Put the
violin with the other luggage and Matt's quarter of a million pound
cello over next to the window. Next to Matt. She resists. He
insists. She gives way. Then a moment of inattention and a band of
thieves in the crowded, hectic cafe. It has disappeared! Panic.
She falls into bottomless depression. Staying for
weeks in bed. Letting everything go. Concert appearances, record
contracts, all become meaningless. Huge amounts of money are at
stake. And during all this time she keeps hanging on to Matt.
We would like to tell her to just pull herself
together and get on with life. But how are we to understand such a
concert virtuoso? How can they play so fast and so accurately,
producing such a wonderful musical tone out of a little box of wood?
It is so phenomenal that we question how it is possible. The
wonderful thing is that a great player transcends just the circus
quality of the thing - astonishing us with the number of notes
played per second - to give a moving, emotional statement.
And such is the brutality of music. There must be
thousands of young people who can play the same number of notes per
second with reasonable accuracy as the great soloists. But they
don't move us. Who knows why? Does the magic of a Stradivarius make
It's like acting. We all speak, but only few
people have great voices which can bring an audience to tears. Or
singing. What is it in Barbra Streisand's voice which is so
overwhelming? A great violinist must have not only this but also the
inhuman technical abilities, the command of the fingers and bow,
demanded of the violin.
This is an historical novel
of ancient Greece, dealing with the period at the end of the Peloponnesian
war, from the Sicilian
Expedition of 415 BC to the surrender of Athens in 404 BC. The
hero is an invented character, Alexias, a youth of perhaps 15 at the
start of story. He becomes an enthusiastic disciple of Socrates and
is good friends with Plato and Xenophon.
Despite this, the story ends before the death of Socrates, so we
miss the author's observations on the famous trial and death by
I enjoyed reading this book. Telling things from
a personal, if invented perspective gives a feeling for what life
must have been like in those times. Lots of fighting. People's farms
being burned, ruined. Then the siege of Athens behind the Long Walls
(the famous plague of
Athens came somewhat earlier, in 430 BC), and the desperate
hunger and poverty the people faced, leading them to surrender to Lysander and the
oligarchy of the 30 Tyrants under Critias.
The first chapters of the book have the
beautiful, athletic Alexias being courted by many of the leading men
of Athens, and he, as a kind of young male damsel, playing hard to
get. Eventually he enters into a deep relationship with Lysis, a man
perhaps 10 years older, supposedly the son of Democritus. So
this is ancient Greek homosexuality.
Looking at the Wikipedia entry
for the author, I see that she was homosexual, and thus she was very
interested in this aspect of ancient Greek life. In the article on Homosexuality
in ancient Greece, it is explained as having an origin in
still more ancient times, perhaps when people lived as
hunter-gatherers. As part of the ritual of entering manhood, the
adolescent would accompany an older man into the bush, living rough
for a time, learning the ways of the tribe. In the classical Greek
period, the relationship seems to have been of a generally platonic
nature, restricted to young men of the aristocratic class. And such
was the relationship between the Alexias and Lysis of the story.
They fought battles together, stood by one another through thick and
thin. At most there is some jealousy when Lysis marries a young
woman, but even then they stick together.
According to the article, penetrative anal sex
was generally considered to be outside the socially accepted norm of
this adolescent and adult "love". Other forms of sexuality were
undoubtedly involved. But love between adult men was not considered
to be proper. Judging from the evidence of ancient Greek theater,
the adult recipient of penetrative homosexuality was an object of
disgrace and shame.
What a contrast with the modern world! The
pedophile is now a disgusting monster. A German politician who was
so careless as to download images of naked youths, posing in the
ancient Greek style, onto his parliamentary laptop was removed from
all his offices and subjected to universal disgrace. There was no
suggestion that he had actually had contact with any young people.
Despite this, legal processes were initiated, but later dropped. It
was then suggested by various experts on television talk shows that
he was not a criminal, but rather a sick person for whom we should
feel sorrow. His sickness might be cured using various forms of
therapy, or drugs. And yet just 40 or 50 years ago, some of the
early Green Party politicians advocated the decriminalization of
sexual relations between adults and children. They have since
apologized; on the grounds of political expediency? On the other
hand, adult homosexuality is most everywhere (although not in
Russia) accepted, even encouraged as being the higher, purer form of
love. Many politicians have gained sympathy by openly marrying their
So what are we to make of all this?
Surely it is sensible to be tolerant of things
which do not cause discomfort to any of the people involved. But the
recent laws which have been passed, forbidding people to take their
mobile phones to the beach for fear that they might inadvertently
take a picture of somebody else are surely absurd. Those who wear
revealing costumes - or not - in public are making a public display
of themselves, one way or another.
This is a book with
alternating chapters, telling the story from alternating
perspectives. The chapters are titled "Joseph" and "Madeline". The
Joseph chapters take place in the London of 1860, or thereabouts,
and the Madeline chapters take place in present-day London (the book
has just recently been published in 2017). The Guardian Review of
the book is here.
The imaginary Joseph Benson is doing research for
the real-life Henry
Mayhew, whose series of books on London
Labour and the London Poor is a classic, describing in detail
the lives of ordinary people in those days, which he called the
"Street-Folk". The fourth volume, which was published ten years
after the first three, dealt with the conditions of prostitutes in
Victorian London, and according to the book, Joseph Benson, who is
badly in need of a source of income, has been hired by Mayhew to do
the research here. He seems to be happily married to a French woman.
Owing to a period of illness, he lost his job as a clerk with the
London Police. If he is not careful he and his family will
themselves become a part of the London Poor.
His original wife died during childbirth, and so
he married her sister. Perhaps he finds the sister to be a poor
substitute for his first love, and so he occasionally has a quick
encounter with one or another of the London prostitutes. These
encounters occur when he enters a pub with the intention of getting
down to work, doing some quiet writing, putting his thoughts
together in order to make a reasonable presentation for Mr. Mayhew.
A shy young woman sits down at the table, apologizing for perhaps
disturbing Joseph. They get into a conversation. Eventually the
woman, ever so politely, wonders if Joseph would like to have sex.
They quickly go out to the back yard of the pub, or more elegantly,
to a room upstairs, where the woman raises her skirts and Joseph
satisfies himself, afterwards being troubled by the whole
Is that what it was like in London in 1860? We
also have Joseph being constantly and openly accosted on the streets
by prostitutes. I suppose the author, Michele Roberts, has read
Mayhew's Volume 4, and thus she bases her descriptions on authentic
evidence from that period.
Joseph gets to know Mrs. Dulcimer, who has a
boarding house which, at first, Joseph took to be a brothel,
allowing him to gather information for Mayhew, but in fact it was a
refuge for poor women in trouble.
The Madeline chapters, taking place in modern
London, contain no prostitutes. Madeline was a Lecturer in
Literature at a London University who was made redundant since, in
the modern world, presumably Literature is considered to be
worthless when compared with Science. She is an older woman in her
50s or 60s. We read much about her friend Toby who is homosexual,
and how he gets together with Anthony, having a wonderful life of
love. Both Madeline and another character, a woman, Francine, seem
to be left out in the cold.
So what is the author telling us here? Were men a
hundred and fifty years ago frustrated, seeking to satisfy their
desires with fleeting, meaningless encounters, leaving the women to
suffer together under the protection of the pleasant, motherly Mrs.
Dulcimer? And in contrast, today the men of London live happily
together, satisfying their desires homosexually, leaving the women
alone, frustrated, unfulfilled. This seems to be the world that
Michele Roberts is presenting to us. An unpleasant place.
I don't really enjoy books like this which, in
the end, simply say that life is a tedious, depressing mess, without
redemption. But perhaps Mrs. Dulcimer does give us a ray of hope.
This isn't really about the
city of Samarkand,
with its monumental, tiled Registan which
was built in the time of Tamerlane, around the year 1400, when
Samarkand was the center of Transoxiana. Instead the story is
mainly concerned with the mathematician, poet and philosopher, Omar Khayyam,
who lived from the 18th of May, 1048 till the 14th of December,
1131. And the second half of the book describes the fictional
adventures of Benjamin O. Lesage, an American who has become
obsessed with the idea of finding the original manuscript of
Khayyam's famous Rubaiyat.
He finds it, along with a beautiful Persian princess which he
marries, both of which he wishes to bring to his wealthy home at
Annapolis, Maryland. Unfortunately, in his euphoria, he chooses to
transport them across the Atlantic in the height of luxury aboard
the brand-new steamship RMS Titanic. It is the year 1912, and the
manuscript sinks with the ship. Both Benjamin and his princess
survive, but upon arrival in New York she disappears, never to be
seen again, as much a figment of the imagination as the lost
Years ago I got a very nice edition of Edward
Fitzgerald's original, very loose translation of a few of the
quatrains of the Rubaiyat, published with drawings in the style of
the 1890s by the Folio Society. It is only about 20 pages long. The
poems are saying that life is short. Enjoy life and love and wine
and the magnificence of the world as it is while you are alive. Many
of the poems are concerned with wine.
But isn't wine prohibited by Islam, and wasn't
Persia overrun by all those Islamists even before the time of Omar
Khayyam? This confused me, but that was back in the days before the
World Trade Center fell down and the USA started its crusade to
terrorize the Islamic world. Therefore it seemed to me to be of no
consequence, and I read the poems at face value.
Looking it up, I see that the Islamic position on
wine apparently stems from the Suras 2:219 and 5:90 in the Qur'an.
In the translation which I have, both Suras refer to strong
drink. The common meaning of that term, at least in Europe, is distilled
alcohol (whisky, rum, and so forth), not wine or beer. For me, I
find that with age my tolerance for strong drink has evaporated; it
gives me an immediate headache. In fact the same is true if I drink
more than a single glass of wine. But I can tolerate a pint of beer
quite nicely in the evening. At least here in Germany, beer is
brewed with no additives other than the traditional three
The contradiction in the Qur'an is related to the
suras 47:15 and 83:22,25. There we are told that in Paradise we will
experience the bliss of rivers of delicious wine... Or is the
contradiction resolved if wine was not considered to be a
strong drink in ancient Arabia?
Well, I, for one, would not like to be in that
Paradise. It would give me a splitting headache.
One way or another we are led to think of the
debauchery of all those Saudi royal princes, drinking themselves
into insensibility in the privacy of their kitsch-filled palaces, or
their Spanish villas. And then the horrible hypocrisy. Common people
caught with a drop of wine are thrown into dungeons, tortured. Not
to mention people who hold hands, or kiss their loved ones in
Was the world of Omar Khayyam less filled with
hypocrisy? I remembered reading another book from the Folio Society:
The Travels of Pietro della Valle. He was an Italian who set off on
a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the year 1614. But rather than
stopping there, he decided to continue his travels onward towards
the East, through Persia and India. He stayed in Persia from 1617 to
1623. And in the book he describes a visit to the King, or Shah, or
whatever it was, telling us that the wine flowed freely. In fact he
normally didn't drink wine, but it was clear that by not doing so
would have caused offense. So perhaps then, and 500 years earlier
during the time of Khayyam, Islamic life might not have been so
That is not to say that life in the modern
"western" world is not similarly oppressive and filled with
hypocrisy. The possession of small amounts of cannabis is still
subjected to criminal prosecution.
Be that as it may, the book is in two
parts. First we have a kind of biography of Khayyam, embedded in a
history of Persian politics in the 11th and 12th centuries. I found
this to be rather unsatisfying. After all, if you want to find out
about who was the grand vizier, or the shah, or whatever, and what
battles they fought, and with whom, then it is simpler to read the appropriate entry in
the Wikipedia. That would also seem to be more trustworthy, since
Maalouf's version is written in the style of an historical novel.
For me this obscure Persian history dragged on for too long. And we
suspect that most of the story of Khayyam's life described in the
novel is also just an invented fantasy.
This is a shame. I wonder how much is definitely
known? Omar Khayyam was not just a poet. In fact he was one of the
greatest mathematicians of the middle ages. As a mathematician he
was famous for describing a method for finding the real roots of any
real third degree polynomial. For those who are interested, I have
link to a discription of the method by David Henderson of
Cornell University. We are impressed with how difficult it was to
use geometry in order to solve problems in algebra. Negative numbers
are not allowed since distances are non-negative. Thus there is a
whole flock of different cases of cubic equations, with their
different geometric solutions.
Who is interested these days in those old, flawed
definitions of Euclid - which are not really definitions at all,
more like poetic descriptions of something which seems to be loosly
connected with the geometry of the real world? Khayyam did give some
thought to the problem of Euclid's parallel axiom, and from his
writings it seems that he was heading towards the discovery of
In the modern world you can just look up the
formula for the solutions of cubic equations, either in books, or in the
internet. No big deal. But this business of finding solutions
of polynomial equations was the backbone of pure mathematics
throughout the middle ages. These days we think of the work of Galois
as being the great thing. And we are happy to simply prove the Fundamental
Theorem of Algebra and be done with it.
The second part of the book, describing the
adventures of Benjamin O. Lesage, seemed at first to be interesting.
But then it became a tedious description of the obscure politics of
Iran during the period 1900-10. The author, Amin Maalouf, clearly
sees it as his mission to educate us about all of this history. But
it was too long, and we are left to wonder if all of the details are
historical facts, or are they just inventions, created in order to
make the Lesage story more interesting. I was often consulting
Google. For example I found that the story of William
Morgan Shuster was, in fact, true. Such a contrast with the
situation today! What a change for the worse in the policies of the
And then, finally, we have the story of the lost
manuscript on the Titanic. The true story is described in this
article in the Iran Times. It was an American edition of the
Rubaiyat which was sent to a British book-binding firm to be bound
in bejeweled kitsch, and it was then sold at auction. In order to
send it to its new owners in America, Sotheby's put it on the
It took me a while to find
an enjoyable book to read. At first I tried (re)reading Mark Twain's
Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. I must have first
read it over 50 years ago when I thought it was fun, but now,
reading it again was a tedious exercise. The Kindle version in
gutenberg.org includes all the illustrations of the original
edition. Despite this, I gave up after only getting through just a
quarter, or a third of the book. For Mark Twain, everything in 5th
or 6th century Britain was an absurd farce, and the time-traveling
hero goes on and on, preaching to us about the wonders of all the
modern (1880s) United States American accomplishments. For me it was
no longer funny.
So then I tried the more recent book Serious
Sweet, by A.L. Kennedy, which, we are told, was long-listed
for the Booker Prize. I should have remembered that whereas Booker
Prize winning - or nominated - books were previously enjoyable to
read, these days they seem to have become nothing more than
exercises in abstract literary experimentation. In the present case,
the story is about two depressing older people on a grey day in
London - a man and a woman - absorbed in self-centered thoughts. We
are told that one or another does something, and then follows a long
passage, describing all the words passing through their heads, most
of which are unpleasant, meditating on what has just happened. When
trying to read this it occurred to me that I very seldom think in
words, except when sitting here, trying to think of something to
write. According to the blurbs accompanying the book, it all turns
into a beautiful love story. Maybe. But after spending hours reading
through all this depressing stuff I gave up before the grey London
day had even become afternoon.
Finally I found this book by Michelle Frances. It
has only recently been published. The story takes place in modern
London. The girlfriend, Cherry, comes from the poor, southwest part
of town. Her mother works at the checkout of a supermarket. There
was never enough money. Cherry was outstanding at school, but there
was no money to send her to university. At least she was able to
talk her way into a job selling real-estate in the most expensive
areas of London. And so she meets Daniel, the boyfriend, who is
looking for a small apartment near his parent's palatial London
townhouse. She shows him one which might meet his requirements,
costing a couple of million pounds. There are one or two other
possibilities, but he says, why bother? he'll just take this one. It
can be easily paid for using his multi-million pound trust fund.
Daniel also thinks it would be nice to have
Cherry as well. And she finds Daniel to be attractive, particularly
considering that he would be the answer to all her financial
ambitions. She had previously been jilted by a rich boyfriend, so
this time she is prepared to more actively defend her cause.
In particular, her plan is to do everything to
separate Daniel from his doting mother Laura. Poor, rich Laura was
at first eager to become friends with the new girlfriend of her
wonderful son, inviting them to spend some time at the family villa
in Saint-Tropez. She is puzzled by the fact that one thing and
another goes wrong and Daniel becomes more and more estranged.
The book is a real page-turner, leading to
catastrophe. Who will win, Cherry or Laura? This is not a book for
the judges of the Booker Prize who would undoubtedly turn their
noses up at the whole thing. Too enjoyable.
Dry, by Jane Harper
The story takes place in a
small, fictitious Australian town, about a five hour drive from
Melbourne. It hasn't rained for two years. (Melbourne, by contrast,
experiences lots of drizzly rain throughout the year.) A family has
been murdered in their farmhouse, blasted with a shotgun. The father
is found a few kilometers away, holding a gun, his head shot away,
apparently suicide. The drought has left many people in the town on
the verge of bankruptcy. Has he killed his family because of
desperation? We follow the story from the viewpoint of Aaron Falk,
who is now a police commissioner in Melbourne, but who fled the town
with his father twenty years ago in connection with the unresolved
death of a schoolgirl.
This was also a book which I couldn't put down,
reading on to find out what happens next. It's a complicated story
with a plot which twists and turns. We see a small Australian
country town torn apart by hatred. Does this exist? I suppose it
must. Evil, unpleasant people can be found in all sorts of
situations. But happily, I only experienced friendly, pleasant
people in Australia.
Toward the end of the story, in a decisive scene,
we have a group of people chasing someone else through bushland so
thick that it was difficult to move through it. When confronted, the
pursued man threatens to drop a lighter on the ground which would
immediately cause all of the bone-dry wood, bark, leaves and
everything to explode in a catastrophic inferno which would also
burn up the whole town and everybody in it.
Well, OK. But I find this idea difficult to
imagine. If that country was subject to such long droughts then how
could such dense bushland have developed in the first place? And if
it were in such a dangerous state, just waiting to explode, why
hadn't it done so long ago?
The indigenous peoples of Australia regularly lit
fires to burn off the accumulated dead material. So did the Indians
of the Great Plains of the United States - thus creating the Great
Plains. But modern society, with its emphasis on private property,
has declared fire to be an evil. After all, nobody wants their
private house to burn down. Thus people "fight" bushfires with
everything they can: airplanes and helicopters dumping water;
firefighters going in with firetrucks, creating back burns, plowing
corridors of bare dirt. Not only man-made fires are fought. Those
caused by the lightning strokes of thunderstorms are declared to be
equally evil. The result is an unnatural imbalance which, in the
end, makes fires in such regions much worse than they would
Toms River is a town in
southern New Jersey, on Barnegat Bay. When my father retired in
1962, he thought it would be nice to have a marina near to where we
had a summer house at Loveladies on Long Beach Island. And so, at
considerable expense, a simple lagoon near the town of Barnegat,
just south of Toms River, was turned into a marina named the
"Barnegat Marina", with creosoted planking lining the lagoon, thick
wooden pylons to provide the slips for about 40 boats, a house for
us to live in, and a large boathouse near the road. For various
reasons our family sold it in 1965, and we moved to Australia, the
country of my mother. Looking at things as they are now, using
GoogleEarth, I see that the marina still exists. It is called "Bob's Bay Marina".
I remember occasionally going to the library in
Toms River to get something to read. And we often drove along the
Garden State Parkway, past Toms River, towards Newark where my
father used to work, and Summit, where the family used to live. From
there, driving in to New York on the New Jersey Turnpike, the air
was filled with noxious fumes from all the industry - Standard Oil
of New Jersey, which was nammed ESSO in those days. And I remember a
large building near Summit which announced itself as the
headquarters of CIBA. That seemed to me to be a very strange name. I
think my father told me that it was a European company.
Pharmaceuticals. But more to the south, certainly south of Asbury
Park, New Jersey appeared to live up to its name: The Garden State.
You would never know that CIBA had hidden a huge
chemical plant in the pine woods behind Toms River. They made
plastics and paint.
Reading this book has taught me many things which
I hadn't known before. It seems that over half of whatever it is
that is put into these chemical processes at the beginning comes out
at the end as an undefined, stinking, poisonous, gooey mess which
must be disposed of. Factories used to just dump it on the ground,
and the workers would hold their noses while passing by. According
to the book, it is possible to heat it up to 700°C, thus breaking
down the molecules into simpler things: water, CO2, SO2, and so on.
No longer organic molecules. I'm no chemist, so you can take this
with a grain of salt. Anyway, heating it like that would be more
expensive than dumping it, thus decreasing the shareholder value of
CIBA and all those other companies. So, as I understand the
situation these days, the mess is now shipped off to Africa or Asia,
where people are prepared to have it dumped on their land in
exchange for a small fee.
The whole thing started off about 150 years ago
in England. Coal was heated in the absence of oxygen to make coke,
which when burned gives very high temperatures for smelting iron,
and the gas released from the coal was piped around the cities to
give gas lighting, cooking, heating. But there was a residue left
over - coal tar. The oily part of that can be painted on wood to
preserve it - the creosote
on the wood of the Barnegat Marina.
People were also looking for some more profitable
uses for coal tar, and a chemist in London, by pure chance,
discovered a way to use it to make a very striking, colorful dye for
textiles. Soon other people found similar processes, giving
different colors. This transformed the way we look. In earlier times
people wore drab, grayish brown clothes, but now people walk
around in all sorts of colorful clothing, often with striking
patterns in loud, contrasting colors. One of the early centers of
this new chemical industry was the Swiss city of Basel. And I have
now finally discovered what "CIBA" stands for. It is: Die
Gesellschaft für Chemische Industrie
The old city of Basel is a wonderful place. Its
university was founded in 1459. Many famous people have lived there.
A great climate, not far from the Alps. A couple of years ago we
bicycled from Basel northwards along the Rhine to Freiburg, then
across the Black Forrest to the source of the Danube. When cycling
out of Basel you pass the huge buildings of Novartis and various
other such companies. Novartis is the fusion of CIBA, which, after
Toms River had to change its name, and Sandoz, which scandalized
people 20 or 30 years ago by accidentally dumping some strongly
colored chemicals into the Rhine. But the buildings of Novartis
today look very clean behind their massive fences.
Further up along the Rhine there is BASF, the
largest chemical company in the world, and Bayer, and all sorts of
other such companies. All of them used to simply dump their wastes
into the river. Then, about a hundred years ago, CIBA established
its American division in Cincinnati, on the Ohio River. Another good
place with a fast-flowing river to dump things into. Lots of other
chemical companies - DuPont, Dow... had the same idea. It was all
about artificial dyes, and then later plastics. People used to think
that pollution was just part of modern life. The smell of northern
New Jersey was the smell of prosperity.
Fortunately attitudes changed. Polluting
factories risked heavy fines. And so CIBA moved from Cincinnati to
the large site behind Toms River in the pine barrens of New Jersey
in the 1950s, where they could dump their chemical sludge in secret.
Unfortunately the ground there is sandy, and the
groundwater flows freely, generally towards the south and the east.
And it was not just CIBA. In an absurd little episode in 1971, for
$40/month (which was never paid), the Reich family rented a field on
their farm to a small contractor who transported thousands of drums
of chemical sludge from the Union Carbide plant in northern New
Jersey. The drums were thrown about, they broke open, were bulldozed
and generally made a mess of. Everything sinking into the
groundwater. I suppose the plume of poison has still not reached the
township of Barnegat. And then there is the atomic power plant at
Oyster Creek, which is the oldest operating commercial nuclear power
plant in the United States. It started operating in 1969. And it is
even closer to our old marina than Toms River.
Reading the book, we are astonished at how easily
these companies simply dumped things, as if there was no tomorrow.
They fought tooth and nail, year in, year out, to avoid having to
spend a few thousand dollars to do things more properly. And what
happened in the end when the people found out about it?
Cleaning up the mess - as far as that was
possible (and it mostly isn't possible) - legal fees, settlements.
All that has cost CIBA many, many millions of dollars. It is no
wonder that the drugs which Novartis now patents and makes are sold
for such exorbitant prices these days.
The book tells us much about how people try to
prove that various kinds of pollutants cause sickness, especially
cancer. Obviously many of the workers at CIBA, and at all sorts of
other companies as well, got cancer, and continue to get cancer. But
then you can say, maybe they smoked cigarettes? or ate lots of
bacon? or sugar? or breathed diesel fumes? Who knows? People can try
poisoning rats with chemicals to prove one thing or another, which
can then be brought into question by various teams of lawyers or
But the best thing to get people worked up into a
state of hysteria is to talk about the sicknesses of little
children. Forget all the workers who have suffered.
Something like 10 to 20 cases of childhood cancer
occur each year for every hundred thousand children in the United
States. Yes, each of these is really a tragedy. It is a blessing to
have healthy children, but a corresponding catastrophe, which I can
hardly imagine, to have a child with cancer. In a town like Toms
River, that rate of childhood cancer translates to a couple of
cases. In the time the water supply was perhaps poisoned, there were
a couple more cases than usual. And so the book goes on and on,
often in repetitive detail, about the complicated legal and
scientific sides of things, the emotional parents, the suffering
children. It became a huge story in the media. In the end, the
government spent tens of millions of dollars on scientific studies,
legal fees. Novartis, Union Carbide, and the Toms River water
suppliers agreed to a settlement, giving varying amounts of a few
hundred thousand dollars to each of the families having a child with
cancer, and the families squabbled about the distribution of this
After reading about all of these chemicals in
artificial dyes, I wonder how safe they really are? We are told that
their brilliance and the fact that they don't fade is due to the
strength of the bonds they make with textiles. It is said that
perhaps they are so active that they might enter our cells,
inserting themselves between segments of our DNA, causing mutations.
Or perhaps not, depending on who is giving the opinion.
Is it true that the general level of cancer today
is higher than in earlier times, even when such effects as smoking
or the general ageing of the population and all the rest is filtered
out of the statistics? If so, could it be, at least to some extent,
due to all the artificial dyes in our clothes? One way or another,
it is surely a good idea to wash new clothes thoroughly before
wearing them for the first time.
Last year we got a small, inflatable swimming
pool so that the grandchildren might splash about in the garden on
hot summer days. It was made in China, as all these cheap things are
these days. When inflating it, it felt strange on my skin, and I
made the mistake of trying to blow in a few breaths. My lips had a
burning sensation, and they swelled up somewhat. So I threw it away
in the garbage. It was not buried in the ground in some sort of
landfill. The city of Bielefeld incinerates the garbage in a large
factory at temperatures which certainly exceed 700°C. The resulting
fumes are passed through a long sequence of filters. So it was well
and truly gotten rid of. But I sympathize with all those Chinese
people who are dealing with this stuff. They and their children must
be suffering from all sorts of cancers.
Boy, by Tracy Chevalier
This is another one of those
novels commissioned as a modern-day retelling of a Shakespeare play,
in this case Othello. The story takes place on the playground of a
primary school in the pampered suburbs of Washington D.C. in the
1970s. The author tells us that she grew up in such a place, so we
presume that she knows what goes on in these circumstances.
Othello becomes Osei, a young African boy from
Ghana whose father is a diplomat who has been stationed in the
United States. Osei has had to become the New Boy in various primary
schools in Paris, London, New York, and now Washington. Being the
outsider is no fun, and being an African in a land dominated by
people of European ancestry is also no fun.
Iago becomes Ian, a horrible little child. The
playground bully. And Desdemona is "Dee", the nice girl of the
school. This is the sixth, and thus last grade of school, and summer
is coming on so that within a month or two, school will be finished
and the children will be going on to junior high. Everything takes
place in a single day, from the start of school in the morning until
the scene in the late afternoon when Osei kills himself by falling
off the jungle gym.
Unlike the Shakespeare play, where Othello has
already courted and married Desdemona at the beginning of things,
here on the playground everything must go much more quickly. Dee
falls totally in love with Osei; Ian poisons things with his
sidekick Rod; Blanca and Casper are an established pair, although of
course it is not to be supposed that the 11 or 12 year old Blanca is
to be equated with Shakespeare's courtesan - or prostitute - Bianca.
Is it true that in the 1970s, eleven year old
primary school children were as sexually aroused as all this,
claiming, or accusing one another of going "all the way"? When
reading these books I often wonder if I am living in the same world
as other people. What was Tracy Chevalier doing when she was eleven
From what little - almost nothing - that I can
recall of my experiences at primary school in the 1950s, I seem to
remember only that it was a generally boring time; not much
happened. The only emotional outburst I can remember is the time
when a highly strung teacher became exasperated about the fact that
I never did my spelling homework. It was the last straw. In a scene
worthy of Shakespeare, she demanded that I come to the front of the
room. Shouting, she threw a book down on her desk so that her papers
flew through the air. And then she became tearfully hysterical,
fleeing the room and escaping to the Principal's office. As I
recall, my mother was summoned by the Principal, and she later told
me that the teacher continued crying hysterically all the while.
Another teacher took over the class, and I think that everyone was
as amazed as I was about the whole thing.
The narrator, a woman in her
30s whose name I think was never mentioned in the novel, has
separated from her philandering, but rich husband Christopher, who
is older, perhaps getting on to 50. He left their apartment months
ago, hasn't been seen since, and she has gotten together with Yvan,
who was a good friend of Christopher. But apart from Yvan, she has
told no one about the separation.
She receives a call from Isabella, Christopher's
mother, asking where he is. It turns out his last known location was
in a luxury hotel in the town of Gerolimenas on the Mani Peninsula
of Greece. Investigating things via Google Maps, and considering the
fact that Gerolimenas is a small town, I suppose this must be the Kyrimali Hotel. And so
Isabella arranges for the narrator to travel there, stay at the
hotel, and find out what has happened to Christopher. But he is not
there. He left a few days ago, somewhere, perhaps researching things
for his proposed book on professional Greek women mourners. More
probably having multiple affairs with the various maidens of
Southern Greece. In fact it already appears that he has had a fling
with Maria, a hostess of the hotel. While idly looking for a way to
fill the time waiting for Christopher, she hires a taxi to take her
about the place, such as it is, and thus she gets to know the
driver, Stefano, who is in love with Maria, a love which is not
We think about this whole situation from all its
angles. It is decided that when Christopher finally shows up, he
will be asked for a divorce to end the whole business cleanly. There
is no more emotional attachment to Christopher. No feeling of
jealousy whatsoever with respect to Maria. The whole thing is
And then we are told that according to rumor,
Christopher has been seen at some town further afield, together with
another woman. Maria is in tears. Stefano shouts angrily at Maria.
But then we learn that Christopher has been killed. He was found in
a ditch by an obscure road with his head smashed by a rock.
What complex feelings this evokes. Isabella comes
on the next plane, together with her husband who is perhaps - or
perhaps not - Christopher's father. How to share the tragedy of
Christopher's death with the parents? Suddenly there is an unwanted
closeness. She is no longer free, divorced. The separation remains a
secret. She learns of an inheritance of three million pounds. Does
she want it? Is the price a life of deception, falsity? And what of
Yvan? If things had been cleanly separated through divorce then she
would have quickly married him, perhaps establishing a family. But
This was a wonderful book. The best thing I've
read in a long time. Beautifully written.
And so I quickly looked for
another book by Katie Kitamura. This was her first attempt at
writing a novel. But it was a disappointment. So different from the
The story concerns Cal, a fighter of mixed
martial arts, or MMA,
and his trainer, Riley. We meet them traveling along a Californian
freeway to Tijuana where Cal is to fight his great rival, Rivera,
who is apparently a Mexican, or at least a Latin American. They stay
in a cheap motel; workout alone in a gym; Cal goes for some early
morning runs. Gradually they realize that Rivera will be too much
for Cal. Despite this, the fight goes ahead, Cal gets terribly
beaten, but he remains standing; he retains the honor of being the
only person who had not been knocked out by Rivera. Yet at the end,
Cal's injuries are so grave that we are left to wonder whether he
will survive or die in Riley's arms. Throughout the book the
sentences are short, declarative. We think of Hemingway, or that
book about boxing by Norman Mailer. But it is not as convincing as
any of that.
In an interview, the author tells us that she has
had a great interest in MMA, attending many fights, not only in the
United States and Japan, getting to know various fighters, writing
about them. But many details in the book do not ring true. For
example Riley suddenly learns that Rivera has established an
expensive MMA training facility in San Diego where he has been
training the next generation of champion fighters. - How could he
not know of such a thing if Rivera was the great champion? He
quickly crosses the border and drives fast up to San Diego in a half
hour to see a show put on by Rivera's people in front of hundreds of
journalists, all of whom knew everything about Rivera's training
center. During this drive, he appears to have spent no time at all
in the formalities at the border with Tijuana. And then during the
fight, we hear much about Cal or Rivera bouncing off, or holding
onto, the ropes around the ring.
In contrast to Katie Kitamura, I claim nothing
but complete ignorance when it comes to the subject of mixed martial
arts. But from what I have gathered by looking things up in the
Wikipedia and looking at a couple of YouTube videos, it seems that
this business is not conducted in a roped-in ring as in the case of
boxing, but rather in a kind of wire cage. It all seems quite
brutal. The fighters kick one another in the head, even when they
are on the ground. Elbow and knee punches are usual.
I have occasionally watched the few boxing
matches which have been broadcast on TV. I know it is a ridiculous
spectacle, seeing who will be knocked senseless. But still, there is
an excitement to it. I can remember breathlessly listening on the
radio - it must be nearly 50 years ago now - to the first match
between Cassius Clay (as he was then called) and Sony Liston. The
young underdog emerged victorious as the greatest fighter in the
world. Despite its appeal to the basest forms of human interest,
still, one had the feeling that it retained a modicum of
respectability. In boxing, blows with the elbows, the legs, are
forbidden, as are kicking the opponent when he is down or falling on
him with a knee into the neck...
But I have read that in reality, boxing is
more dangerous than MMA. All those heavy punches to the head with
thick, padded boxing gloves destroy the brain more quickly and
thoroughly than do punches with the light gloves in MMA where the
fighter will break his hand if he punches too hard. And as with
bare-knuckle fighting, it is generally over quickly, since the
injuries come quickly and they are very obvious.
While MMA is a new sport which until recently was
almost everywhere illegal due to its brutality, fans of the sport,
such as Katie Kitamura, might point out that it belongs to an
ancient tradition, beginning at least with the pankration in
ancient Greece and proceeding through the Roman gladiatorial
"games", and onward throughout the history of human aggression and
brutality. But this is not really a subject which is of much
interest to me.
I found a list of the 100
greatest books, in the Guardian, listing them in their order of
publication. Of course the list was restricted to books written in
the English language. And they seemed to be chosen especially in
order to reflect the reading preferences of English readers. I
thought this one might be interesting, so I downloaded it from
It was published in 1915, a spy story. The evil
Germans are incredibly sly, efficient, deceptive. For example in one
scene, the British War Cabinet meets to discuss things. The Minister
of War, or something, is present and takes part in discussing all
the top secrets. But our Hero in the book discovers the fact that
the real Minister of War is ill, staying at home. This false
Minister of War is a German spy in disguise, deceiving all of the
other ministers who are unable to recognize their fellow minister,
his face, his way of speaking. Would such a feat be possible? It
seems to me rather far-fetched. And the story was filled with many
further such far-fetched feats and ridiculous coincidences.
Still, it was an amusing story which I enjoyed
reading. There is almost a feeling of nostalgia for the naive
innocence of those times, despite the fact that it led to all the
catastrophes of the 20th century.
This is one of those
Scandinavian "thrillers" or crime novels, where we are most
interested in the personalities of the various policemen (and
especially policewomen) involved in solving the crime.
It's the first book of this genera which I've
read. I used to enjoy watching the Swedish series with Commissioner
Beck on TV. Then there was Wallander, another Swedish police series
which went on for many episodes. The whole thing became a bit silly
when the Shakespearean actor, Kenneth Branagh, started playing the
role in an over-exaggerated way. Then there was a Danish TV series
telling a long, coherent story, with a warm, compassionate woman
playing the role of the policewoman in charge of things,
investigating a series of most horribly brutal crimes. Another one
which I started watching was The Bridge, which was even more brutal.
At that point I gave up watching these things, and in fact I've
almost completely given up watching television.
But I saw this book, and I was vaguely curious.
Apparently these Scandinavian TV dramas are all based on these
Scandinavian crime novels. The author of the present book is
Norwegian. In addition to writing lots of thrillers, making millions
since - besides me - millions of people buy them, and they are
translated into scores of languages, he is also a successful rock
musician and a rock climber. According to his entry
in the Wikipedia, he has climbed routes up to the French
grade 7c. That is to say, he is really extremely good. Equal
to the best rock climbers in the world at the peak of their
abilities, climbing at the limit of what is possible. What a
I wish I could say that this book is up to the
level of the French grade 7c. It is true that the number of bizarre,
nightmarish, disgusting murders, tortures, psychotic episodes in the
book - if that is the criterion for our ranking - is well worth a 7c
grade. And I suppose it is, given the millions of people who have
bought it in all those different cultures and languages. For now I
have had enough of this. But maybe in the future I might get in the
mood to read another one of Nesbo's books.
A while ago I read an
article in the Guardian saying that Dustin Hoffman was not really
the best actor to play The Graduate in the movie. According to the
article, the book was not the sort of Jewish coming-of-age story of
the movie; rather it was a satire on the WASPish world of suburban
America. But having now read the book, I can appreciate the movie
In the story we have Benjamin Braddock returning
from college on the East Coast to his parents home in suburban LA.
He was a great runner on the school's track team, editor of the
school paper, led the debating society, achieved outstanding grades
in all his courses, was awarded a famous prize leading to graduate
studies in either Yale or Harvard, and in any case he was offered
teaching assistant positions in various other colleges.
OK. So I'm trying to picture him in all his glory
and success. The picture I see is something like that great
Norwegian success story, Jo Nesbo, of the previous book. But how is
it that after expending all that energy in such a successful
university degree, he suddenly comes home as an emotional vacuum?
Could we explain this as being similar to those Peace Corps
volunteers of the 1960s who immersed themselves in the starving
masses of Africa or Asia, only to be culturally shocked on their
return to the United States? Maybe. But it doesn't seem to me to be
very plausible. When I was studying for my degree I noticed one or
two of my fellow students who, unlike me, received the top marks and
the highest honors; but then, for one reason or another, in later
studies or professions, they did not live up to their great
expectations. But they were totally unlike Benjamin Braddock.
Before buying the book on my Kindle I looked at
some of the reviews written in by previous Amazon readers. Many gave
only one star. And reading some of these one star reviews, I saw
that most were written by young people, probably high school pupils
who had to read the book for their English classes. They hated it.
Given their situation, I would probably have hated it as well.
Imagine getting into bed with the wife of your father's business
partner! My father was well into his 40s when I was born, so when I
became 21, as Benjamin Braddock did, my father's business partner
would have been well into his 60s, if not 70s. I can't remember if I
ever met his wife, she would hardly have corresponded with the Anne
Bancroft of the movie, but I do remember that the business partner
had died of a self-inflicted, perhaps accidental, shotgun wound well
before that time. I do vaguely remember the son and daughter, but
they were much older than me. Still, when reading the book I was
filled with the remembrance of the wonderful music of Simon and
Garfunkel, and the scenes of driving through California in an Alpha
A nicely written book, but
filled with unpleasant characters. Gil Coleman was a middle-aged
professor of literature in some English university, full of himself,
intimidating the students with aggressive talk. And so, of course,
they loved him, particularly the female students. He slept with as
many of them as he could. In particular Ingrid, who became pregnant,
thus causing her to be exmatriculated and Coleman to be sacked
despite the fact that he had tenure. (Is this believable in the
England of the 1970s or 80s?) They marry. He talks of love, romance.
They move to a small house somewhere near the beach which he has
inherited, far from London, Oxford, or whatever. There is hardly any
money. He tries working at the local pub but is fired for
drunkenness. The family must skimp, often subsisting on the charity
of neighbors. Ingrid bears two daughters, Nan and Flora. Gil spends
the nights in his "writing house" down in the garden. It must be one
of those gypsy wagons which are found in some English gardens.
Ingrid and the children are not allowed to look in, it is taboo. He
is writing his great novel which will be famous and solve all the
money problems. But in reality he locks himself in his writing house
each night to have sex with all the various women who, for some
unexplained reason, find him to be attractive.
He does also find some time to have sex with
Ingrid, and, somewhat in the style of Scheherazade, she tells him
dirty stories on the nights when he is with her. And so he writes
down these stories, making a pornographic book out of it and
becoming a celebrated, famous author, feted in all the newspapers
and TV programs of England. All of this is too much for Ingrid. She
disappears, perhaps drowning herself off the local beach?
And so the story of the book takes place years
later. Flora is now in her early 20s, having a casual but torrid
affair with Richard, someone who happens to work in a second-hand
bookshop. Flora worships her father, unaware of his true nature. The
chapters alternate. We have the story of Gil, who has now become a
sick, degenerate old man, dying of cancer; and then we have the
letters Ingrid wrote to Gil all those years ago, just before she
disappeared. Rather than giving them to Gil, or posting them, she
has hidden them in between the pages of various books which are
lying about the house.
The house is filled with thousands of books. They
are overflowing everywhere. Gil has accumulated them from
second-hand bookshops over the years, not to read, but rather
because he was amused by the scribbles, or slips of papers previous
owners left in them.
I was reminded of relatives of mine who were
professors at an English university and whose house was similarly
overflowing with books. Thousands and thousands of them. The
bookshelves were packed full. Books were piled up along the walls,
tumbling down the stairs. While I visited, new books were acquired
each day or two, and they were read. Out of curiosity I tried
testing my relatives, picking some dusty book out of a bookcase, an
old science fiction paperback. Trivial pulp fiction. And I was
immediately given a summary of the plot. Such a contrast between
real professors and the absurd character of this novel.
The story of Siegfried
Sassoon is that he was a war poet of the First World War. In 1917 he
circulated a letter of protest about the conduct of the war, but
then he rejoined the troops where he was accidentally shot by
friendly fire, receiving a flesh wound to the head. He survived and
then lived on into old age, writing a couple of books and more
poems. I did read his Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man some time
ago, and of course a few of his war poems. He seemed to be a brave,
defiant young man. But although he lived on, we only really think of
him in connection with the war. Unlike say, Robert Graves, who wrote
many books and had a long and distinguished career after the war,
Sassoon remains a war poet.
This book gives us a new story, in the form of an
historical novel, but telling us the true story of what really
happened. The author, by chance, through his marriage to his Welsh
wife in 1960, got to know the old veterans of the Royal Welsh
Fusiliers, which was Sassoon's regiment. One of them was the man who
shot Siegfried Sassoon. It is a compelling story. No accident. And
afterwards that man (almost) never spoke again, isolated,
embittered, living the rest of his life in a hospital for mentally
Sassoon came from a family of great wealth
and privilege. The Sassoon's
were considered to be the Rothschild's of the East. Siegfried grew
up in comfort on the family estate, going on to Cambridge, which he
quit before taking a degree. His ambition was to become a famous
poet. He was 27 when the Great War started, living at home, riding
out after foxes, playing cricket, golf, trying to find things to
write poetry about.
He did have a couple of collections of poetry
"privately" published. That is to say, he paid some publishers in
the "vanity press" a great deal of money to typeset, print and bind
a few copies of the resulting books of poetry which, subsequently,
nobody was particularly interested in reading. Does anybody these
days have such a burning ambition to be a poet? The vanity press has
become much cheaper. You can just start your own website, as here,
practically for free. And there are machines which, when fed a text
- I suppose in pdf form - churn out a given number of paperback
books automatically, without further human intervention, for a
reasonable fee. And then of course there are these poetry "slams",
whatever they are, and even hip-hop, rhyming "musical" chanting, for
whatever it is worth.
But back in 1914, the young Siegfried saw his
chance to become a famous war poet, and so he enlisted immediately,
hoping to get into the action as soon as possible. After a false
start he became an officer in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and made it
to France. We imagine the horror of trench warfare. Existing for
year after year in the mud and filth, subjected to continuous
bombardment, sniper fire, and so on. But this article
from the BBC magazine gives a somewhat different picture. And as for
Sassoon, we learn that from the time when he first stepped into the
trenches in 1914 to the time of his "Soldiers Declaration" in 1917,
he had, in fact, spent a grand total of 3 weeks in the front line
trenches. That included longish periods of leave in London when he
befriended various literary types, promoting his poetry, and also a
9 month period when he claimed to be suffering from dysentery.
But during those three weeks, he certainly seems
to have been as blood-thirsty as the best of them, keen to kill as
many "Huns" as possible. He was awarded a Military Cross for walking
across no-mans-land, unarmed, in full view of the "Hun", to save a
wounded man, trusting that the "Huns" who were pointing their guns
at him would refrain from pulling their triggers. On the other hand,
his greatest feat was to single handedly blow up a machine-gun nest
with grenades, then jump into the German trenches, lobbing a few
more grenades, scattering the enemy soldiers. If he had left it at
that, returning to his own lines to report his success, he would
undoubtedly have received a Victoria Cross. But instead, he
frustrated the plan of battle, sitting down in a corner of the
German trench to wait and see if he might kill a few more Huns,
calmly taking a book of poetry from his pocket and reading in it for
a few hours. Thus, for fear of killing possible English soldiers,
the advance was halted, and Sassoon received nothing more than the
anger of his commanding officers.
Apart from these episodes, the time in France was
spent turning out reams of poetry, marching about on military
exercises with his men, being together with his good friend, Robert
Graves, and sampling the cuisine in the various French restaurants
near the front.
The common soldiers in his platoon did not fair
so well. At the time of his "Soldiers Declaration", only three of
the original members were still present: the sergeant who in later
years told the story of this book to the author, and the twins, Rhys
and Davey Jones. The twins had signed up in 1914, under-aged, at
only 16. Davey was autistic and totally out of place in the army.
Rhys had promised that they would stick together and he would bring
Davey home safely. They had survived terrible actions at the
beginning of the war, going "over the top" into machine gun fire.
When Sassoon arrived, he appointed Davey to be
his "runner", taking messages back and forth. While being apparently
mentally retarded, Davey had the talent to memorize lists of rhyming
words, and he could instantly invent primitive limericks. Sassoon
was delighted, and became close friends with Davey, often laughing
together at his dirty rhymes. Others, and especially Rhys, were
scandalized. But for Davey, Sassoon was a great poet, and so he
copied out in his own notebooks all of Sassoon's poetry, including
the "private" poetry which Sassoon wrote, not for publication,
criticizing the war and its conduct.
The drama ran its course when Sassoon was away in
London in 1917 with his literary friends where he was persuaded,
especially by Bertrand Russell, to publish an anti-war protest.
Sassoon was proud of his writing and sent copies to everyone he
could think of, including his commanding officers. They, also Robert
Graves, and many others were shocked. After all, what he had written
was, for a serving officer in time of war, an offense worthy of a
court martial, even a firing squad. And so his highly placed friends
with their connections to parliament and the war ministry saw to it
that Sassoon was declared to be temporarily insane, and he was sent
to a hospital in Scotland for those suffering from shell-shock,
where he spent his time practicing golf and entertaining his friends
in the restaurants of Edinburgh.
Unfortunately he had also sent Davey a copy of
his declaration, together with a request that it be posted on the
noticeboard of the company. Poor, simple-minded Davey followed the
orders of his good friend, and was immediately arrested for
sedition. And for that he was executed by firing squad to set an
example. All of the officers in the regiment hated the thought of
Siegfried Sassoon. After Sassoon was declared to be no longer "shell
shocked", he learned of Davey's fate, and so a feeling of guilt made
him desire death himself. He eventually returned to his old platoon,
and in the night, returning from no-mans-land, he stood for a long
moment before Rhys, a clear target, expecting to be shot. But Rhys
only managed to hit him with a glancing bullet to the head.
And that is the true story of Siegfried Sassoon
who seems to have been a man who was remarkably ignorant of the
consequences of his actions. Perhaps this is something which is
common amongst those who grow up in circumstances of great
A Japanese "middle school",
between primary school, which I suppose must take children from 6 to
10 years, and high school for the 15 to 18s. We read that even in
middle school, the children are sent during the evenings to "cram
school" where they are required to memorize lots of nonsense in
order to pass the exams to get into a good high school. Then in high
school there are the appropriate cram schools to memorize further
nonsense in order to try to get into the university of choice. Thus,
we suspect, there is much tension, suppressed aggression, lurking
beneath the surface.
The story of this book seems at first to be
crazy. Such terrible emotions.
It is the final year of the middle school. The
unmarried woman teacher has a small daughter. One of the pupils
imagines himself to be superior to everybody else, but in reality he
is seeking the love of his mother who left him with his father in
order to pursue her career as a professor of electricity at some
university or other. Thus, seemingly absurdly, in order to attract
the attention of the mother, he decides to kill the teacher's
daughter with an electrical device he has built which delivers a
severe electrical shock. It doesn't quite work. The daughter is
knocked senseless, but she is still breathing. Another boy is also
present, and in order to show what a great fellow he is, he drags
the unconscious daughter to the nearby swimming pool and dumps her
in, face down, to drown.
And so the book proceeds from chapter to chapter,
describing the whole business and its consequences from the
perspective of each of the boys, one of the mothers, a girl, and the
teacher who is looking for revenge. She knows that in the modern
world, children below the age of something or other can do anything,
commit murder, and get away scot-free, since children are taken to
be pure, innocent beings, as yet untarnished by the sins of the rest
of us. Thus she accepts the verdict of the police that the death of
her daughter was an accident, therefore allowing her to take her
Her first idea is to trick the two boys into
drinking some of the blood of the father of her daughter, who has
AIDS, by putting some of it into their milk cartons, and afterwards,
when all the children have finished drinking their milk, telling the
whole class what she had done. This drives the second boy mad, and
he ends up killing his mother and being assigned to a life of
psychiatric confinement. But the boy who made the electrical device
knows that AIDS is not so easily contracted. He continues happily
(Note: Ten or fifteen years ago I became aware of
the fact that some people disputed the hypothesis that HIV even
exists. They include such reputable people as the Nobel Prize
Mullis, who invented the polymerase chain reaction. I found
their arguments, particularly as expressed by Peter Duesberg, to be convincing.
Reading this book, with its description of the seeming hysteria
which fills the minds of these Japanese people when they think about
AIDS, led me to click once again, after all these years, into the
website of the Perth Group
to see if anything new has come up. It hasn't.)
To return to the story, the boy finally decides
to construct a bomb to be placed under the stage of the school and
exploded during the graduation ceremony. It is triggered using a
mobile telephone which he has inserted into the mechanism so that it
will explode when he dials its number using his own mobile
telephone. The teacher finds out about this and puts the bomb in the
university laboratory of the beloved mother of the boy so that when
he dials the number, the mother and the rest of the laboratory is
blown to smithereens. What a strange story.
The scene is the morning of
"Mothering Sunday", the 30th of March 1924. A man and a woman lie
together, naked on a bed. It is an unusually warm day. The sun is
shining in through the open windows. It is a large house in the
middle of its extensive grounds.
The woman is Jane Fairchild, the young maid from
the estate of another family a mile or so away. She was an orphan,
given away just after her birth. The date of her birth and her
original name, if she even had one, is unknown. But she is a fair
child, with no mother. The young man is Paul Sheringham, and they
are in his bedroom. Everyone else is away visiting their mothers, or
else celebrating in restaurants or on picnics. Paul is engaged to be
married two weeks from now to Emma, a young lady from a rich family.
And indeed, he has an appointment to meet her at 2 o'clock at a
restaurant for luncheon.
The story goes on and on in a dream-like way,
describing the scene and all its meanings and consequences, and the
tragedy to which it leads. And then often we are transported 60 or
70 years into the future where Jane has become a famous novelist,
and we think of her answers to the questions of people who have
interviewed her. Where have her stories come from? There are so many
stories. But this one story of Mothering Day in 1924 remains her
secret, shared wordlessly with Ethel, the Sheringham's maid. A
beautifully written book.
In her reminiscences, Jane thinks about the fact
that she spent a sleepless night after that day, reading Joseph
Conrad's Youth in order to distract her mind. And so I read
it too, imagining what Jane must have felt.
The story begins with an
English couple, David and Jo, arriving in Morocco on a ferry from
Spain. They had flown down from London, taken the ferry across the
Strait of Gibraltar, rented a car with the plan of driving in the
evening and through the night to an extended weekend party taking
place near the town of Errachidia, which is a couple of hundred
kilometers inland, over near the border with Algeria. David is a
medical doctor, a surgeon. A recent case went badly and he was sued
heavily. Both he and Jo are heavy drinkers. They argue the whole
The party is being put on by Richard, an old
school friend of David, but Richard is now extremely rich. I suppose
some internet business, worth hundreds of millions, if not billions.
And so he lives in various extravagant houses in London, New York,
and also in the desert of Morocco where he puts on elaborate society
happenings together with his homosexual partner who is also an
internet billionaire, or something. Richard and partner are
following the tradition of earlier homosexuals who found
satisfaction in Morocco, or Algeria. Probably similar to the
degenerate heterosexual males who find satisfaction in Thailand. In
any case, with all their riches, they employ a whole village of
Moroccan people as servants on their estate, and they imagine that
they get along well with them. Most of the guests at the present
happening are very rich themselves, either coming in their own
luxury SUVs, or even being flown in by helicopter. David and Jo are
a bit out of things by this measure.
In the night, driving to the party, half drunk,
afraid of the possible dangers inherent in all these strange Arabs,
or Berbers, or something, suddenly an Arab stands in the middle of
the road, waving a sign. And David drives the car into him, killing
the young Arab.
They put the dead body in the back, and well past
midnight finally arrive at the party. The body is put in the vast
garages of the estate where there is air conditioning to keep it
from decomposing too rapidly in all the heat.
The party goes on. 50 or more guests. All doing
their degenerate things. The most exquisite, finest, rarest tidbits
are served by the silent, observing staff. All sorts of alcohol
flows freely; cannabis, cocaine, is smoked or sniffed. The servants
see everything, and especially the dead body in the garage. The
local Moroccan police are summoned, and come in the middle of the
night. Perhaps it was just an accident. Was David to blame? They
leave. After all, Richard has the situation under control.
Then the next morning, in a cloud of dust, an old
beat-up Toyota turns up. It is the fierce-looking father of the
young man who was killed, together with two or three other men from
his village, somewhere off to the south in the desert. What do they
want? Certainly the body to bury, but also money? Revenge? They say
that they want David to come with them, alone, to take part in the
funeral and so to atone for his guilt. Richard tells David to just
go with them, take all the money he has and then give it to them.
So they set off, the old man, the father, silent,
driving fast, angrily. He would like to kill this infidel to avenge
the loss of his only son. That would be the only way to restore
honor. David gradually realizes his danger. But he is not afraid. He
feels sorry for the whole thing, the poverty of the people. He sees
how they live, digging fossils out of the desert to sell to dealers,
barely making a living. The Arabs hate the fossils, ungodly monsters
of a time before Allah.
Jo doesn't know what to think, but in the
end, Richard convinces her to drink up, sniff cocaine, and she
casually goes to bed with one of the other guests.
David survives the Arab village and is returned,
a sobered man. All the other characters in the story behave badly,
even horribly. We learn that the young Arab which David had killed
had been a migrant to Europe, where he casually killed an old woman
in order to rob her of a small amount of money. His motivation in
standing out in the road was to stop David and Jo's car, then to
shoot them with a pistol in order to rob them, those infidels.
I will not reveal the final twist of the story.
But in the end, even Richard begins to wonder how safe he is in the
wilds of inner Morocco, with all his riches, an infidel surrounded
And again the story is about wealthy Europeans
and desperate Arabs. Naomi Codrington is 25 and she is unhappily
living with her father, Jimmy, a somewhat shady, but very wealthy
Englishman and her stepmother, an arrogant Greek woman, on the
island of Hydra, just off the coast from the Greek mainland. We
learn that there are numbers of rich Europeans and Americans who
have extravagant summer houses on Hydra, next to the impoverished
local Greek community. Naomi hates her stepmother and all the
meaningless, showy riches of the family. That summer - it must be
2015 or 16, when the Mediterranean was full of migrants - an
American family rents a house on the island, and Naomi becomes
very friendly with Samantha, the 18 year old daughter of the
family. Rambling about, getting to know one another, they find a
man, hiding out on the eastern coast of Hydra. He is obviously a
Syrian, hiding from the police, hoping to move on, probably to
Germany or Sweden. His name is Faoud.
We learn lots of things about Naomi and
Samantha, and eventually also about Faoud. Naomi cooks up a scheme
to help Faoud on his way, thus doing good in contrast to the shady
and unpleasant things she associates with her father. The scheme
is that she gets the maid to give her parents tea laced with a
strong sedative so that they sleep deeply, and she should leave
the door open. Then in the night, Faoud should come to the house,
take a collection of valuables, together with the father's keys,
then take the early ferry over to the mainland. There, the
family's car is parked in the parking lot. He should then drive
away, across Greece to the west coast, and then take the ferry to
Italy where the family also has a house north of Rome.
On the evening, Naomi goes over to Samantha's
place, and they both enjoy a deep, pleasant, cannabis-induced
sleep. But over at the Codrington's, things do not go according to
plan. Jimmy wakes up and surprises Faoud. It comes to violence and
Jimmy and the stepmother are killed. Faoud makes it to Italy where
he is tracked down by Jimmy's secret henchman, an old man who
reminded me of Mike, the character in Breaking Bad. But unlike
Mike, things turn out badly.
Of course you can say all sorts of things
about all those migrants making their way to Europe, not only from
those middle eastern countries which have been destroyed by the
United States, but increasingly from west Africa as well. But I
will restrain myself from writing anything further on the subject
here. Suffice it to say that this was simply an enjoyable
adventure story which fails to deal with the migrant crisis in any
sort of profound way.
The story begins at an obscure town on the
border between Thailand and Cambodia. Robert is an English school
teacher who is fed up with his life in rural England, having to
live frugally, alone, on his small salary. During the school
holidays he travels to far-away countries in order to try to see
the world. (This reminds me of the present-day school teachers of
Germany, whose endless conversations center on the number of
exotic countries they have traveled to in their school holidays.)
It seems that many Thais from Bangkok cross
over into Cambodia to gamble in the casinos there. And Robert's
plan is to stake everything he has left of his meager savings on a
couple of bets in the hope that he will win, and thus have enough
money to stay on and avoid having to return to England. And he
does win about $2000. This is a lot of money in Cambodia.
He does a bit of sightseeing, but then is
befriended by a strange American, living in a simple house on a
river. They have fun drinking, talking into the night, and
gradually Robert succumbs to sleep, only to awaken the next day,
wearing the clothes of the American, without his passport or his
$2000, on a motorboat driven by a Khmer who speeks no English, and
who drops him off near Phnom Penh.
Rather than trying to contact the British
Embassy, which would send him back to his rural teaching, he
decides to use the name of the American who had cheated him, and
so try to survive in Cambodia. He offers himself as a teacher of
English. A strange doctor engages him to teach his daughter. But
the daughter speaks perfectly. She had lived for years in New
York, Paris, whatever. The doctor himself had survived the Killing
Fields of Pol Pot. He knew that life is sometimes difficult.
Sometimes you have to pretend to be someone you are not. And in
Cambodia, much is not what it seems to be. The $2000 has become
bewitched, and it comes back to haunt Richard and his new
Again we have a dissatisfied Englishman, the
son of a vacuum cleaner salesman who has studied law, but not at
Oxford or Cambridge which, of course, would be a requirement if
ones ambition is to become a highly paid lawyer in a snobbish
English law firm. Still, he cultivates an aristocratic way of
speaking and works for an established law firm somewhere on the
south coast of England, without really being a member of the inner
He has been entrusted with the financial
affairs of a rich old woman, a widow, whose mental facilities are
gradually declining. And so, seeing the opportunity, our hero has
transferred most of her wealth into a secret bank account in Hong
Kong. We get to know him in Macau where he has become addicted to
gambling everything away in the casinos. In particular, he plays baccarat.
Looking things up, I see that the rules, or
rather the order of play of baccarat, and in particular Punto
Blanco Baccarat, which is what our hero plays, is really very
simple. Before reading this book I hadn't thought about such
things except, perhaps, while watching one of those original James
Bond movies where the impression is that baccarat appears to be
very elegant, complicated, accompanied by lots of technical
expressions in French. But as shown in this YouTube
video produced by a Las Vegas casino, you just put your
money on either "player" or "bank". The chances are almost even,
so that the casino only takes just over one percent on average.
Thus, in comparison with many other casino bets, baccarat is the
least bad. (It is possible to win at Blackjack by playing with a
system, but that is forbidden in the casinos.) Apparently
something like 90% of all the betting in the casinos of Macau is
on baccarat. And it is not just a Chinese thing. Baccarat is also
the big game in Las Vegas.
My only experience of a casino was during a
meeting of the Australian Mathematical Society in Hobart, back in
the 1970s. (Am I repeating myself here? I've written so much that
I've forgotten what I wrote eight or ten years ago.) Anyway, in
those days a casino opened in Hobart, and so in the evening most
of the people went to try it out. Unfortunately, the rules of the
house were that gentlemen were required to wear a tie, and of
course I had no tie. But the wife of my thesis supervisor found
one for me so that I was allowed to enter. I had read that the
odds were best at the dice table, and therefore I got two chips, I
think for 10 dollars, and put them, one after another on the dice,
losing both times. I found this to be a very satisfying result,
proving that gambling is nonsense. My supervisor spent long hours
at Blackjack, and then after the return to Canberra he spent weeks
thinking about possible winning strategies. A few years after that
an American mathematician published a book, detailing his deep
investigation of the game of Blackjack and describing a strategy
for beating the casino.
But I find it difficult to understand the fact
that some people become addicted to gambling. It is simply a
tedious, repetitious experiment in probability theory, leading in
the end to the realization that the Law of
Large Numbers is true and that you have lost your money to
the casino. Perhaps people enjoy the atmosphere of the casino. And
they must get excited about the fact that the winnings and losings
fluctuate a bit, gradually tending towards a loss.
To get back to the book, our hero pretends to
be an elegant, aristocratic English gentleman. He calls himself
Lord Doyle. He has taken lots of money from the poor widow back in
England, and so he makes big bets in Macau. He is a "high roller".
And so the staff of the casino pretend that he is a wonderful
person, pampering him with free drinks, snacks, a private room. He
takes the occasional prostitute, and even imagines falling in love
with them. But of course, in the end, he has lost everything.
Back in Hong Kong, thinking of suicide, one of
his prostitutes saves him, taking him on the ferry to a house she
has on a small island. Is this love? Will our Lord Doyle settle
down to a sensible future with a caring Chinese woman?
No. He steals her money and returns to Macau
where he puts everything on a single bet. It is a "natural" - a
hand which always wins. The chances of this are only 1 to 10, or
something. So he puts all his winnings on another bet. Another
natural. And again. And again. The money doubles and redoubles
something like 10 times. A gambler's fantasy, so improbable as to
verge on the impossible. All the Chinese think he has become
filled with magic spirits. He can only win. He has become rich.
But then one more play, betting everything, and it is all lost.
One thing I didn't understand was that,
according to the descriptions in the book, it sometimes seemed
that our Lord Doyle was playing against some of the other players
at the baccarat table, not directly against the casino. But all
the descriptions I find in the internet say that you only play
against the casino.
Reading the last two books, I began to
suspect that they were telling us something about the life of the
author, an Englishman who travels about the world, avoiding
England. Both of the characters in those books tell us how they
hate England. A dreary, wet, cold place, filled with unpleasant
people. And they escape to warmer, tropical places to discover
that life can become an adventure.
This book is not a novel. Instead Lawrence
Osborne writes about his personal experiences of life in Bangkok.
At the beginning, before he has become a successful novelist, he
is rather poor and he has come with the purpose of having his
teeth done by the dentists of Bangkok. He tells us that traveling
there, staying for a few weeks in a cheap hostel for foreigners
and paying all the dentist's bills, was much cheaper than if he
had had it done in New York, where he was living at the time.
He doesn't tell us anything about the details
of his dentistry. Instead he describes a few of the other
characters living in the hostel. They are middle-aged, single men.
Or perhaps they have escaped their marriages. He also meets an
older, retired bank manager from Perth in Western Australia who
has been living in Bangkok for some years. His wife died years
ago. The bank manager spends his time painting water colors,
trying to exactly reproduce scenes from life. He also introduces
the author to a young Thai woman, a student, who happily sleeps
with these men in exchange for some money. We are told that the
bank manager, and perhaps the others as well, keep themselves
going with Viagra.
There is much philosophizing about life and its
superiority when lived according to the principles of Buddha, and
especially the Buddhism of Bangkok. We wander about the streets of
Bangkok. At one stage the author has used up all his money. He
says that he is expecting his check to arrive any day, and he
seeks to borrow from his friends. He even ventures into the bar of
a hotel where, he has been told, lonely middle-aged Japanese women
hang out, hoping for an adventure with some western man. The woman
he meets speaks no English and he speaks no Japanese, yet he goes
up the elevator with her to her room. She takes a shower while he
sits on her bed, observing that her purse is lying openly on a
table. And so he quickly steals 2000 Baht (about 60 dollars) and
disappears before she emerges from the shower. A sordid little
episode which reminded me of the scene with gigolo in Jean Rhys' Good
The later chapters are more conventional.
Lawrence Osborne has now become the successful writer with enough
money to cover all expenses. (His royalties from the books I have
bought in the last couple of weeks will be enough for him to buy a
round or two of drinks in a Bangkok bar.) He again wanders the
streets, telling us stories. But they are not as interesting as
the ones from his first episodes. He is now living in a small
rented house in a more exclusive part of the city. I followed some
of his wanderings via Google Street View, and I see that he was
living in a loud, hectic part of the city filled with cars,
elevated trains, huge department stores, massage parlors, masses
of people on the sidewalks. This is the last place I would go to
look for Buddhist enlightenment.
He seeks out the men he had gotten to know
during his first visit. The bank manager has become even more
fragile, limping along on his walking stick. We wonder how far he
still gets with his Viagra. Then there is the Scottish
ex-mercenary, marching about Bangkok with a military bearing,
seeking tourists to come to his lodge in the Cambodian forests.
This was the inspiration for one of the characters in Hunters
in the Dark.
In the end, the impression we get is that the
author is still a lonely man, seeking meaning somewhere.
Looking for something simple, fun,
amusing to read, I found this one which was on the bestseller list
of Amazon. The hero is a professor of computer-biology, whatever
that is, at a university in Austin Texas. He puts a few details
about where he has seen one or two animals into his computer, the
computer is set into motion, it rumbles into action, and out comes
a detailed map describing everything about the behavior of the
It is the semester holidays and he is in the
wilds of Montana, doing something biological. A woman is horribly
mauled and killed; apparently a grizzly bear did it. Yet for
various reasons, our hero realizes that it must be a human being
in bear disguise. And his computer program tells him that this
murderer must have killed countless other women.
How many young women disappear in the United
States each year? Who knows? They may just leave home, off to seek
a better life in California or something. Or perhaps they are on a
long hiking tour, telling whatever friends they might have that
they won't be back for a long time. And gradually whoever might
have known them forget about it. Could it be that hundreds of them
are mysteriously disappearing, being murdered by monstrous
murderers in grizzly bear costumes in Montana?
So the book lurches breathlessly along from one
short chapter to another, often telling us various obscure facts
from the world of biology, with the hero being beaten up by drug
addicts, police, men in bear costumes. Near death, but apparently
surviving in the end.
Well, OK, it was a fun read.
Even today, the British refer to the
uprising of the native soldiers of India in 1857 as the Indian
"mutiny". What a strange distortion of reality! As if India was a
ship, and the sailors were refusing to obey their captain.
This book tries to capture the state of mind of
the the English in those days. In an Afterword, the author tells
us that he has based his story on the many diaries, letters, and
other writings which he was able to find from the period, often
using the stories they told directly in this novel. It was a
collection of writings from various places in India, and the name
Krishnapur is a fiction, but perhaps we are justified in imagining
that it is more or less the story of the Siege of
What was it like for the people living in such
a siege? It is only in the last few chapters that we are told that
the people are dying of hunger, cholera. They are almost too weak
to defend themselves. Running out of gunpowder. But in the
chapters before that, we are treated to very different scenes.
The English, together with Sikhs, loyal
Indians, Muslims, and whatnot, are all gathered together in the
compound of the Residency. The person in charge of things, who is
the hero of the book, has the title "The Collector". He does not
have the title of Governor, or Administrator, or Mayor of the
town. Instead, he is the head of the branch of the British
East India Company at Krishnapur. He is responsible for
collecting as much of the wealth of the town as possible and
shipping it back to England to be distributed as dividends to the
shareholders of the company, thus contributing further to the
unbounded riches of the ruling families of Britain.
But all those Sikhs, and other such people of
the lower orders, scarcely play any role in the story. It is all
about the British. Numerous tee parties, and the fact that one
lady or another was not invited. The Collector, and all the other
important people, keep telling us about the wonders of the Great
Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in London in 1851, and we
hear of the various knickknacks they happen to have bought during
There are some scenes of heroic English
officers and other gentlemen firing their canons at hoards of
charging Sepoys, slaughtering them in their hundreds at one go.
And the occasional defender is heroically stricken down. But this
provides little more than an exotic touch to the general banter of
the upper classes.
The Residence at Krishnapur itself seems to
have been stocked with an incredible amount of gunpowder, despite
the fact that the local army base, with all its gunpowder, was out
of town and was taken over by the Sepoys at the beginning of the
uprising. Tons of gunpowder are used to blow up an adjoining
mosque. Much more goes into a big tunneling operation to create a
huge explosion underneath the Sepoys, and of course the cannons
use up lots more. One is reminded of those scenes in the Wild West
movies of the 1940s and 50s where the hero fires his revolver 15
or 20 times in rapid succession without reloading, despite the
fact that the cylinder of his revolver only takes six cartridges.
The priest, or is it the pastor, goes on and
on, telling us about the various points of his religion. He is
particularly upset about the fact that the Crystal Palace was a
monument to man's ingenuity, and thus to a false pride, ignoring
the fact that God is the creator of everything.
There are two medical doctors, a comfortable
older doctor and the younger Dr. McNab who, we are told, is a
Jewish Scott, despite his name. In a slapstick scene, the two
doctors dispute the possible causes of cholera. The older doctor
maintains that it is caused by a miasma being carried through the
foul air of the compound. Dr. McNab tells us the true answer,
correctly quoting the analysis of the 1854
Broad Street cholera outbreak by Dr. John Snow. But in order
to prove his point, the older doctor drinks a glass of the
effluent which had been discharged by one of his cholera patients.
Soon afterwards he himself dies of cholera. Still, despite this
proof of the truth of Dr. McNab's hypothesis, The Collector, and
various other of the important personages, reserve their
judgement. It may have been just an unlucky coincidence.
And so while all of this is telling us lots of
things about the Victorian Age of England - perhaps instilling a
sense of nostalgia in the minds of English readers of the book - I
find it difficult to believe that this was what really occupied
the minds of the people who were under siege back in those days.
But who knows? Maybe this is a true description of the goings on
in one of those towns in India during the "mutiny".