books2020

This year (2020)

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


Nigel Hinton:
    The Heart of the Valley
Mike Gayle:
    Half A World Away
Rodney Stark:
    God's Battalions
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Some re-readings
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Yangsze Choo:
    The Night Tiger
    Ghost Bride
Stephen King:
    11.22.63
Kate Atkinson:
    Transcription
Kathryn Hughes:
    Her Last Promise
Diana Johnstone:
    Circle in the Darkness
Wilkie Collins:
    The Woman in White
    The Moonstone
    NoName
    Armadale
    Man and Wife
    The Dead Secret
John Ironmonger:
    Not Forgetting the Whale
Osamu Dazai:
    No Longer Human
    Blue Bamboo
Keigo Higashino:
    Newcomer
Yuko Tsushina:
    Of Dogs and Walls
Sherwin B. Nuland:
    How We Die

The Heart of the Valley, by Nigel Hinton

     The heroine of this book is a bird, a "dunnock", something I had never heard of before, but apparently the more common name is the "hedge sparrow". The story takes place somewhere in the English countryside, near a couple of farms. And we follow the drama of this little hedge sparrow through a year of its life.
    There are so many of these little birds peeping and tweeting away, particularly in the summer. All sorts of different species, yet they all look pretty much the same to me. Not like the birds of Australia which are very distinctive. But how do they survive this horrible northern European winter? We hang seed dispensers from the the branches of trees in the winter, resulting in much activity in the garden during these cold, wet, muddy months. And somehow the tiny birds survive. Then in the spring and the summer the air is filled with their calls. But we have remarked on the fact that in recent years there seem to be fewer bees and butterflies compared with a few years ago. Is it all that glyphoast which the farmers are spraying everywhere?
    The book starts off in the winter. Many of the birds die of cold and hunger. But then our little sparrow finds a mate, and they take refuge and some warmth in a barn. When the warmth of spring returns they make a nest in a hedge directly next to a driveway, which is soon destroyed by a car squeezing by another car and scraping the hedge. Then they try somewhere else, later in the summer.
    The story then shifts to Africa. We follow the trials of a cuckoo, flying for days across the desert, then across the Mediterranean Sea, and France, to finally arrive in the woods near our sparrow's farm. And so the drama begins. The horrible cuckoo baby kills the sparrow babies, one after the other. But with the advantage of having hatched a couple of days earlier, and with much endurance and agility, one of the sparrow babies survives.
    Indeed, I hate the sound of those cuckoos. Germans make quite a fetish out of their rules and regulations for hunting, so I suppose they must be a protected species. But what is the good of such parasitic birds?
    Well, I suppose all of these things are relative. After all, the sparrows themselves live by eating up all the insects and worms that they can find. Such is the struggle for life. The thing that I don't understand is why sparrow evolution has not advanced to the point of being able to distinguish a cuckoo baby from a sparrow baby, which would enable the grown-up sparrows to rid their nest of such little monsters.

Half A World Away, by Mike Gayle

     The story is concerned with adaptation. For one reason or another, children are sometimes left without parents. They might then be put into a strange family and brought up as children of the new family. Or, usually less happily, they are put into some sort of institution for dealing with the situation.
    In the book, things start off with a mother who has lost herself in a drug-induced haze and various, more or less violent male partners. She has two children: Kerry, an eight year old daughter who is looking after the two year old son. She is keeping herself and her baby brother alive using desperate measures. But then they are taken into care. The baby son is adopted by a wealthy, open, friendly family near Primrose Hill, and he thrives, eventually becoming a barrister in the law courts of London. He has changed his name to Noah. Kerry was put into a home with other orphans and has now become a cleaning lady, privately cleaning other peoples houses for some small, minimum wage, living in a London slum.
    Kerry remembers her brother well, but the adoption people do not tell her how to get into contact with him. Only if he were to contact them would they release such information.
    We follow Noah and his problems in marriage. He seems to be an almost perfect husband to his wife, and father to their daughter. But his complaining wife says that he is not sufficiently open. He does not talk to her enough. And so she wants a divorce.
    Is she being unreasonable? Aren't women often naturally more talkative than men? But more than that, we must think about the situation of a person living as an adopted child in a family. The family might be as friendly and loving as can be, but in the background is the unspoken thought that the ties are not so strong. If things go wrong might the adopted child not be just as easily returned to wherever it came from? I can well imagine that adopted children become careful, guarded, cautious with their families. And this could become a basic way of dealing with life.
    Unfortunately the book then became a gushingly emotional story about the sister developing cancer, finding the long lost brother using a detective agency, deceiving him at first about her motives (ensuring that Noah becomes the guardian of her 10 year old son), and then dying and being eulogized by everybody, including the brother. I would have preferred to find out more about what Noah's wife was thinking, and what Kerry really thought of her brother without all of this unrelated drama.

God's Battalions, by Rodney Stark

     This is not a novel, instead it is a brief history of the Crusades. The subtitle of the book is, "The Case for the Crusades", thus telling us that they were justified in some way. Indeed, thinking about the books I have read, from Gibbons vast history through to a book describing the Crusades as written down by contemporary Arab observers; throughout all of these writings we have the impression of primitive, violent hoards, invading peaceful, civilized lands, leaving chaos everywhere. Was Pope Urban II nothing but a wild rabble-rouser at Clermont, addressing a mob of ignorant peasants on the 27th of November, 1095?
    Or is all of this just a distortion of things as they really were? Did Gibbon become carried away with his anti-clerical posture? And was it only natural that the Arab inhabitants of the lands being invaded thought of themselves as being civilized and the invaders as brutal aggressors? What were the causes of the Crusades?
    Going back further in time to the year 600, we find that most of the Mediterranean world was Christian. And judging, for example, by the Confessions of Saint Augustine, people were free to think in various ways about philosophy and religion, continuing the open tradition of ancient Rome. People went on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, perhaps out of curiosity, or religious fervor, or to atone for their sins. Then, around 620 Mohammad appeared on the scene, preaching religion but also becoming a warrior, uniting the tribes of Arabia, first through attacks on caravans and later in pitched battles. The Arab warriors who came after Mohammad quickly conquered many further lands, including Jerusalem.
    It is said that the system which developed was tolerant, world-open. Arab learning preserved the "dark ages" from pure ignorance. But is this really true?
    Islam is a utopian system. Yet utopias are always harsh, intolerant. Free thinking cannot be tolerated. What other explanation is there for the fact that of the hundreds of Nobel Prizes which have been awarded in the sciences, only three have been given to people with Muslim backgrounds, despite the fact that almost two billion of the people in the world adhere to that religion?
    Of course the hoards of Arab warriors emerging in the seventh century, riding their camels out of Arabia, were no better than soldiers everywhere. But as Rodney Stark shows, much of what is attributed to the high Islamic culture of the middle ages was due to people who refused to change to the new religion. And while they were tolerated, they were treated very unfairly with repressive taxes and all sorts of restrictions. And the Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem were often attacked, robbed, tortured, killed.
    The brutal, bloody sack of Jerusalem by the crusaders is often compared with the peaceful conquest of Saladin. But this comparison fails to remember the rules of warfare in those days. If a city under siege surrendered, it would be spared. Otherwise everything would be destroyed; the men killed, the women and children sold into slavery. Both the crusaders and Saladin followed these rules. Various cities were subjected to Saladin's wrath, as bloody and savage as anything the Crusaders offered.
    Then there is the sack of Constantinople in the fourth crusade. Yet this becomes understandable when we read of the continuous double-crossing of the crusaders and their colony by the Byzantines, often allying themselves with the Turks against the crusaders.
    And finally we have the fact that these days many Muslims consider the Crusades to be an historical evil, a crime which for a millennium has been left to fester and eat away at the soul of Islam. The Zionists of Israel and the invaders of the United States are said to be crusaders. The bringers of evil. But in fact this idea of the crusaders as being of great significance was an invention of 19th century Islamic nationalism. The commentators back then, a thousand years ago, considered the Crusades to be a minor affair. If anything, they were a welcome force to counteract the continuing invasions of the Turks.

Some Re-readings

    A painful back condition struck me down for a couple of weeks, and the realization that things will gradually go downhill as age progresses through the seventies and into the eighties. And thus I was in the mood to re-read some of the books I've read over the last few years. A good exercise. Not always reading in order to find out what happens, but to know what happens and to think more about what is happening. This time I was especially moved by Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki. I think it is his best.
    And so this year I suppose I will do more re-readings and less new readings, not bothering to write about them here.

The Night Tiger and Ghost Bride, by Yangsze Choo

     Ghost Bride was Choo's first book, but I read The Night Tiger first. Both take place in Malaya, which has now been named Malaysia after it stopped being a British colony. Ghost Bride is set in the 1890s and Night Tiger in the 1930s. And the author was born in Malaysia of Chinese descent, as are most of the characters in both stories.
    Ghost Bride is certainly a very unusual story. I've never been to China, and I know very little about Chinese culture. But as I understand it, the tradition is to make paper models of various things and then burn them at the graves of the ancestors, perhaps even paper money as well, with the thought that this might help the spirits of the ancestors in the unknown Beyond.
    I had thought that these Asian people generally adhere to the reincarnation theory of death. But the author shows that the after-world is, in fact, just a place where the soul temporarily abides before it is subjected to the judges at the Gates of Hell. There, punishment is determined for the sins of the past life, and after this punishment is extracted the soul then returns to our world in its new reincarnation. Therefore the purpose of these Chinese graveyard sacrifices is to provide those souls which are waiting as long as possible before their passage through the Gates of Hell with everything it takes to make life in this pre-purgatory as pleasant as possible. How dreadful it is to be stranded in the after-world with nothing; no money, homeless, destitute. Such is the sad fate of those whose families neglect to offer the appropriate sacrifices at the graves of the ancestors. And on the other hand, those happy souls whose families burn huge numbers of paper images and even large amounts of paper money live a life of great riches in the spirit world, even approaching the fabled luxuries of a Jeff Bezos or a Bill Gates. Such ideas of the afterlife were exploited by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages in order to extract huge amounts of money from the lower orders of the population. The money was not burned, but rather it was used to support the extravagant and degenerate life styles of the church hierarchy. And as I understand it, the same thing happened when Buddhism descended from the heights of the Himalayan mountains to the riches of lowland China. This is the reason that Buddhism is no longer a popular religion in China.
    And so Yangsze Choo gives us a story, telling us what that other world is really like. The heroine in the Ghost Bride is Li Lan. She is the daughter in a family which was earlier wealthy but which has become impoverished in the opium fumes of the father. He has incurred crushing debts to the powerful Lim family. The only son and heir of the Lim dynasty, Lim Tian-ching has unfortunately died and it is proposed that Li Lan, a still living person, should marry his ghost. She resists, and in the night, in her dreams, she is tormented by the ghost of Lim Tian-ching, driving her almost crazy. She drinks poison and nearly kills herself, lingering for weeks in a half dead coma. During this time her soul wanders about between the real world and the spirit world. It becomes a sort of adventure story. And a love story with Er-lang, a half man, half spirit. Very strange. But I enjoyed the book.
    The Night Tiger is not such a ghost story, although there are ghostly elements in it. It is the 1930s and we meet some of the British colonialists. They are medical types, working in a hospital in a town in the middle of Malaya. For most it is a banishment from the home country as a punishment for the sins in their previous lives there.
    The Night Tiger is in some way the ghost of one of these doctors who has just died. We are familiar with the concept of werewolves. Apparently in Malaya the similar concept of were-tigers existed. Somehow, after death, perhaps if a person was not completely whole, for example if a finger had been amputated and thrown away, or placed in a specimen glass with formaldehyde, then the spirit of the dead body is not free. It becomes a were-tiger, attacking people, or at least haunting them. It can only be pacified if the missing body parts are returned to the rest of the body in the grave within 40 days of burial.
    But there was much more to the book than just this. It was an interesting story, giving us a feel for colonial Malaya before it gained independence. And I enjoyed the book even more than Ghost Bride since I'm not really such a fan of pure fantasy fiction.

11.22.63, by Stephen King

     Apparently the author has written more than 50 books. This is the first one, and probably the last one which I have read. But I do know that he is a kind of cult author with a large following of voracious readers. Many of his books, including this one, have been made into movies or TV series. He must be one of the richest authors in the world, although I can't imagine that his riches would approach the multiple billions of dollars that all those truly rich people have amassed for themselves in our seemingly ever more corrupt modern world.
    Following the American convention for writing dates, the title of the book is the 22nd of November, 1963, the day when Kennedy was assassinated. The book reduces the whole business to a silly nonsense. It is a time travel adventure. The hero, Jake Epping, is a school teacher in a small town in Maine. The time is the summer of 2011. Al, who has a diner in town where Jake often eats hamburgers, sells them very cheaply. It turns out that there is a secret passage in the back cupboard leading to the same town in Maine in September 1958. You can walk down the steps and it is always the same initial scene regardless of what you may have done on your last visit. But when you walk up the stairs back into 2011, only 2 minutes have passed in Al's diner. And during all the years that Al has had his diner, he has been walking down to 1958, buying meat at the pre-inflation prices of those days and bringing it back up the stairs to be sold cheaply, but at a good profit in 2011.
    But then, rather than just going down the steps for a quick shopping of meat, Al, who is, as is the case with Jake, an adherent of the political theory that democrats are good and republicans are bad, decided to stay in the world of 1958, waiting for it to become 1963, and then to save Kennedy from his assassination, and thus changing the world from being bad to being good. So for Al, five years of time have passed, but in the world of 2011, when he re-emerges from the past, only 2 minutes have passed. The next day when Jake goes to the diner for a cheap hamburger after school he is astonished to see that for some strange reason, Al had aged totally from one day to the next, and he was practically dead. So Al told him about his passageway to the past and his plan to kill that evil Lee Harvey Oswald, the presumed killer of JFK. Obviously Al has not succeeded in his mission since, as we know, Kennedy was actually killed on that day. Thus he tells Jake that he must take his place and carry the plan through to success, changing history so that today, Wikipedia would not have this page in its archives.
    After a few fits and starts, Jake does stay in the world of 1958-63. He falls in love with a beautiful woman and they succeed in stumbling onto the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, thus saving Kennedy, but getting the girlfriend shot and killed. Jake decides to return up the steps into the Maine of 2011, two minutes later, but five years older. He finds that the world has been changed in terrible ways. Everything has gone wrong. It seems that even time and space are in the process of descending into chaos. Existence itself is collapsing!
    He learns from a strange man near the bottom of the steps that the only solution is to go down the steps and then return, thus "resetting" the world to its true state. He goes down, but wants to stay in order to meet his girlfriend again and look for a better outcome - after all, love solves everything - but in the end he decides to return up the steps and save the world, the universe, space and time, existence, and everything else. In the final scene he travels to Texas and meets his girlfriend who is now 80 years old and knows nothing about all this nonsense, but he finds her to be still attractive.

    Well, Ok. I'm not averse to an amusing little time travel story every now and then. As mentioned here a number of times, we can even say that the idea is simply a description of the many-worlds theory of quantum mechanics. Each possible "reset" takes us back to 1958, and from there we branch off into a new world which no longer has anything to do with our actual world. The time-traveler has suddenly materialized out of nothing in 1958 with no parents, no birth, no history. But why not?
    I see that Stephen King was also born in the year 1947, just a couple of months after I was born. So maybe he thought it would be nice to revisit the memories of his early teenage years in this story. The hero, in his 1958 existence, soon buys a 1956 Ford Sunliner convertible and enjoys cruising about the place. He compares it to his small Japanese car in 2011, which he hates. And I remember admiring those cars which had a large chrome spare wheel container mounted on an extended rear bumper. I thought that looked really cool and I wanted a car just like that when I grew up. Now I am 72 years old. If I had such a monstrosity of a car I would immediately sell it.

    But the book is not really concerned with pleasant feelings of nostalgia for the elderly. It is very long. I think the print editions run to 700 pages or so. Very long-winded, tedious prose, taking forever to get to the point. It is all about the theory that Lee Harvey Oswald, a nasty, violent, crazed nut acted all alone. I had thought that of the people who bother to think about the JFK assassination, those who still believe in such an unbelievable theory are those who simply refuse to read about the known facts. They would prefer to float about in their happy fantasy-land where the USA remains a peaceful example to the rest of the world of an enlightened "great" society. But at the end of the book, Stephen King, who surely does take the trouble to read various things, gives us a description of what he says are examples of writings which prove this "lone nut" theory. What can he be thinking?
    It seems to me to be the case that people who have become very rich tend to adopt very conservative beliefs. Perhaps they feel that if the world will just remain the way it is, with only few changes, then their riches might be preserved. Upsetting ideas, such as that the USA experienced a kind of coup d'état with the assassination of JFK, leading to ever more bloated spending on ever more wars, are thought of as being vaguely threatening to their accumulated wealth.
    And so he depicts Oswald as a monster. And also that mysterious figure, George de Mohrenschildt, is described as a monster. Motivated by these thoughts and looking about the internet, I found a manuscript which de Mohrenschildt wrote shortly before he either committed suicide or was murdered. The title is "I am a Patsy!". An interesting document, much more interesting than the present book. It seems to be sincerely written. Is it fact or fiction? Who knows what's the truth? Was de Mohrenschildt linked to the CIA as most investigators seem to believe? What role did he have to play with respect to Ruth Paine, and with getting the job at the Texas School Book Depository? And did Oswald really take a potshot at General Walker? The whole thing remains an unresolved murder mystery. The secret files of the CIA were supposed to be released a year or two ago, but President Trump, despite all his bluster and assurances that he would follow the law, caved in, leaving us still in the dark.
    Was the world of 1958-63 better than that of today? Perhaps not. But somehow I have the feeling that not all that much has changed in the last 50 or 60 years.

Transcription, by Kate Atkinson

     What do people do who go to university and study English Literature? Do they all become school teachers? Maybe they go to work in banks or into hedge funds, overwhelming unsuspecting customers with elegant words. Of course if they have gotten their degree at Oxford or Cambridge then they are a step above the rest, and if it is World War 2, they are recruited into MI5. Then after the war, the obvious step is into the BBC, with lots of obscure contacts, making for interesting listening.
    Such was the life of Juliet Armstrong. But she was not a secret agent, parachuted into foreign lands to pretend that she was what she was not. Instead her job was to sit in an apartment in London, fitted out with earphones and recording equipment, listening to the goings on in the apartment next door which had been thoroughly bugged by the technical people of MI5, and then typing out what she was able to hear. What was she hearing?
    Another MI5 agent had ingratiated himself into a small circle of people who were sympathetic with the enemy, Nazi Germany. They were mainly housewives. They believed that their friend, the MI5 secret agent, was a Gestapo agent who was reporting everything over to Berlin, not knowing that it all went into the room next door where Juliet was typing everything out. The little group of pretend Nazis was very dilettantish. The housewives report seeing ships out at sea, or soldiers walking on the sidewalks. And they discuss how wonderful it will be when Hitler finally conquers England.
    In order to liven things up, Juliet is asked to play a more active role, becoming a young member of the group. The goal is to find a secret book, the Red Book, which is thought to be hidden in the house of one of the women, containing some sort of secret information. She visits the ringleader, finds the book but is almost found out, climbing out the upstairs window and down the ivy clinging to the house. While doing so she compromises the English maid of the house, and soon the maid disappears, having been murdered and buried in some hole.
    Then one day one of these housewives stumbles upon the TRUTH about the fact that their apartment rendezvous has been bugged, with, again, very messy results.
    The book jumps into the year 1950. Juliet now works for the BBC, producing Children's Hour. But she receives mysterious, threatening messages. Is somebody out to get her? Is it revenge? Or is it MI5? Has Juliet suddenly become transported into a novel by John le Carré?

Her Last Promise, by Kathryn Hughes

     The narrator has a nice name: Tara Richards. Tara is a figure in the myths of Buddhism. And Tara Air flies from Kathmandu to the airstrip at Lukla in the foothills of Mt. Everest. But all that is neither here nor there as far as this book is concerned.
    We first encounter Tara and her mother, Violet, in very difficult circumstances. They are living in a slum somewhere in London; Tara is a young girl, 14 or 15; Violet is herself well under 30 and she earns money singing, or more?, in sleazy London clubs. In the middle of the night they are kicked out of their room and onto the street by the slum landlord. They wander through the night. But then they are taken in by an old man who has a rundown hardware shop and given a room upstairs.
    Violet finds a new boyfriend. He seems to be rich. A nice house. Will he marry Violet and lead Tara into a new life of plenty? He drives off with Violet to "The Continent" for a holiday, leaving Tara at the hardware store. But they don't come back. And so Tara lives with her grandmother, Violet's mother, in a small English coastal town, finishing school, hoping that her mother will eventually return. She wonders who was her father? But the grandmother only gives her vague, meaningless words.
    Thirty years pass. Suddenly Tara receives a letter from a lawyer. There is a package from some place in Spain, leading to her mother and a resolution of the mystery, accompanied by her old boyfriend from school and revelations about her father. A nice, if somewhat contrived love story.

Circle in the Darkness, by Diana Johnstone

     The book is a kind of autobiography of the author in which she tells us the occasional thing about herself while telling us all about what she has observed of the world. She was born in the 1930s, in Washington D.C. By the 1950s she was a reporter, writing from a "liberal" or "left" point of view, and throughout everything she was always on the side of those who are against war. Since almost all newspapers, television, radio and all the other mass media, particularly these days, are for war, she was reduced to being the somewhat unloved European correspondent for an obscure socialist newspaper in the United States. She was also the Press Secretary for the Green Party in the European Parliament before it was taken over by Joschka Fischer and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, thus amalgamating it with the War Party.
    Given what the "left" has become, I certainly don't think of myself as being left-leaning. The only time I have ever voted in my life, I voted for Gough Whitlam in 1972, and indeed he went on to become Prime Minister of Australia. I admit that there was a degree of self-interest involved since I had been drafted in Australia and I certainly didn't want to be sent to Vietnam. Thankfully Whitlam, the leader of the Labour Party, did extract Australia from that senseless mess and thus I was spared from any unpleasant military experiences.
    Chapter by chapter we are led through all the various episodes of the news for the past 50 years, and the author tells us how she experienced these things. She has written a separate book on the war in the former Yugoslavia. In those days, almost 30 years ago, I saw no reason to doubt the narrative we were being constantly told on the television news and everywhere else. Namely that Serbia was the aggressor, a reincarnation of Nazi Germany, full of concentration camps where the poor Catholic Croats and Muslim Albanians were being tormented. (A strange idea, given that the Serbs were the victims of Nazi aggression in World War 2.)  Thus NATO bombed them to smithereens. Was that a reasonable action? How should I have known anything different? I have never been to the lands of the former Yugoslavia. But Diana Johnstone was one of only very few people who went to Serbia and reported on the facts to her obscure newspaper in America. We learn about a very different story.
    What has happened to the "liberal" press? Of course the television networks have been bought up and conglomerated so that they speak with just one voice, that of the moneyed interests. As I've remarked already here, changes to the Guardian newspaper seem characteristic of what has been happening. For years I subscribed to the Guardian Weekly which was sent to us on thin, airmail paper. Then for a year or two, after getting a laptop computer, I subscribed to the normal Guardian via the internet, reading the daily edition. But now I only occasionally click into the Guardian website. And what's there? Climate Change, fashion advice, articles about sex, feminism, and collections of photos. And also articles telling us why it would be a good thing to go to war with still more countries.
    I am writing this in the middle of the Great Panic of 2020. I wonder how it will be thought of in the future? It is now Easter Sunday, a time when the usual winter flu mortality normally declines to a lower value during the summer months. Looking at the figures on the website for the total mortality in the different countries of Europe, the present situation seems comparable with the flu seasons of  2016-17 and 17-18. But I am expecting to see a spike in the data later on, representing the additional casualties in this bizarre War on Death: suicides, domestic violence, financial collapse, and all the other consequences of the global Lock Down. As with the "normal" influenza, most of the deaths occur in the very old who will soon die anyway. It is not the Black Death!
    Are we living in an extraordinarily hysterical time? Perhaps not. Think of all the cases of mass hysteria, even worse than that of the present, which history presents us with.

N.B. I have found an interesting website called "off-guardian.org". They say that the founders of the website are all distinguished by the fact that they have been censored on and/or banned from the Guardian's "Comment is Free" sections. And indeed, in contrast to the articles in The Guardian, the articles there seem to be well worth reading.

Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White and The Moonstone
 
   These two books were both published in installments in Charles Dickens' magazine All the Year Round. In fact, Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens were very good friends. I read The Moonstone first and then The Woman in White afterwards, although they were published in the other order. Woman in White in 1859 and then almost 10 years later, in 1868, The Moonstone. The two novels are very similar to one another. I had the feeling that the author, after a few years, decided to tell the story again, but in a better way. The complicated plots can be found in the respective Wikipedia articles so I won't try to summarize everything in a long-winded fashion here.
    In both books the story is told by the technique of the various characters telling us what is happening from their points of view, or from the entries in their diaries, successively carrying on the story, from one to the other. In both stories the heroine is at first prevented from exercising her love for the hero, but as the extremely complicated mysteries are finally cleared up, true love prevails. In The Woman in White, the heroine, Laura, is a weak, spineless, rather pathetic character, in contrast with her half-sister Marion, and we are disappointed by the fact that the hero, Walter, in the end, marries Laura rather than the far better Marion. But thankfully the heroine of the Moonstone, Rachel, is a strong, upstanding character, and we finish the story with the satisfaction that the hero, Franklin, who had falsely been placed in a wrong light is redeemed and they marry happily.
    I enjoyed reading both books. Much better than Dickens.

    One thing which struck me was the role the post played back then in the 1860s. These days we have email and instant messaging: WhatsApp, and whatever else there is. I have none of those later applications on my smartphone, but apparently, as I understand it, schoolchildren, even while sitting together, prefer to WhatsApp with one another rather than simply speaking. Perhaps more formal communications these days use email. You have a look at what's in your Inbox, and maybe tomorrow or the next day you might do something about it. Everybody knows that whatever you send off in the email is immediately analyzed by the vast computers of the NSA, MI5, and all those other spying agencies who have gone to the absurd trouble of secretly digging up undersea optical cables to tap into things, using their submarines and so forth, pretending that we do not know about it. Back in the 1860s the system was that there was a "mailbag" in the house which your footman quickly took to the post. There was great privacy. It was a very serious crime to open other people's mail. And often even within a day you got a letter of reply from your lawyer, or your lover or whoever you had written to. Very efficient. Almost as quick and reliable, but much more secure, than today's email. The characters travel on the trains in and out of London on the spur of the moment, quickly getting to their destinations in the country. What a contrast with public transport and the massive traffic jams blocking the streets of today's London.

No Name
 
   At the beginning we have a rich family living in luxury in the English countryside. A spacious house, vast gardens, servants. And in contrast to the usual situation which we expect to read about, we find that the father is extremely wonderful, loved by everybody. The wife is a model of wifely charm. There are two daughters, Nora aged 26 and Magdalen aged 18. Nora is a picture of straight-laced sobriety while Magdalen is full of spirits. But soon tragedy strikes. The father and the mother die within days of each other, the father in a train crash, the mother in the process of childbirth at a much too late age. And so Nora and Magdalen are orphans.
    At first one would think: no problems! All the riches will be transferred to the two daughters through legally binding testaments. But there is an obscure difficulty. The father, in his wild youth, as a soldier in Canada, married a woman who then disappeared down the river to New Orleans. In subsequent correspondence she refused to become divorced. Thus Nora and Magdalen's parents were not married. They were living in sin! (back then in 1860 or so). But that's Ok. Our author, Wilkie Collins, studied law before deciding to become a writer, and so he amuses us with all the ins and outs of the law in a wonderful style which reminds us of the novels of Henry Fielding. Thus, despite the fact that the parents were secretly not married, still, the testament was valid. However, tragically, a few weeks before their deaths, the parents received a letter from New Orleans informing them that the earlier wife was dead. Thus they could marry, becoming honest people. And so they took a secret journey from their country estate to London and became married without telling anyone (who all assumed that they were married in the first place). But, as Collins informs us, the marriage had unexpected consequences. It was apparently the case in those days (but hopefully not today) that the act of marriage essentially created, under law, entirely new entities out of the freshly married people. Thus all legal agreements which related to people before marriage became void and required to be transferred to the new, married, legal entity in order to again become valid.
    For Nora and Magdalen this meant that they were bastards, not even entitled to their surnames, and the family riches of the father, who died without testament or legal offspring, reverted to the brother of the father. Now one would think that the brother, himself a wealthy man, seeing the injustice of the case, would restore the inheritance to the sisters. But no! He was a horrible, rapacious man who soon dies, leaving the whole thing to the even more horrible and degenerate son. Thus Nora is reduced to being a penniless housemistress, charged with taking care of a pair of spoiled young brats in the household of a family which despises her. But Magdalen is made of sterner stuff. And so the story develops in all sorts of complicated ways which are described in the Wikipedia article of this book. In the end natural justice triumphs, the good relatives win and the bad ones lose, and both Nora and Magdalen live happily ever after.
    How the idea of marriage has changed since those Victorian times!

Armadale
 
   Again a very complicated plot. A family somewhere in the Caribbean, wealthy slave owners. A young man visits from England; he is to marry the daughter of the family. His friend has come along with him. But the friend secretly falls in love with the daughter and elopes with her, leaving on a ship. The jilted man follows in the swift yacht of the daughter's family. In a storm they encounter the ship with the daughter and her false husband, sinking. The man enters the ship and locks his erstwhile friend in a cabin, leaving him to go down with the ship and drown.
    The daughter, who is pregnant, is delivered in disgrace to a family estate in England to eventually bear a son, Allen Armadale. The murderous man takes another wife and has a son with her. For some reason which was explained at the beginning of the book, but which I have forgotten, he was also named Allen Armadale. Yet this second son is reviled by his family and he is set out alone into the world as a child. He takes on a strange name, Midwinter. The story takes place years later when the two sons have grown up, not knowing of each other. They meet by chance and become best friends. And there is a woman, Lydia Gwilt, who was the maid of the daughter of the plantation. Owing to an obscure series of deaths, the original Allan Armadale inherits the English country estate with all of its riches. He moves in with Midwinter. He is an honest, simple-minded person, unwilling to take part in the tedious rituals expected of him.
    The main story centers on Lydia. She is 35, Allan only 21 or so. Yet her plan is to become mistress of Allan's fortune by marrying him. She appears in the district, turning all heads with her overwhelming beauty. All men are gasping for breath. Allan proposes to her. Midwinter secretly loves her and eventually marries her under false pretenses. A drooling old man, Mr. Bashwood, worships her. Thus the story proceeds from episode to episode, telling us of Lydia's changing schemes. But to be quite frank I found all of this to be extremely difficult to imagine. In order to protect her questionable identity she spends most of the time hiding behind a veil. We imagine the elaborate, bulky costumes women in Victorian England were expected to wear. Rather like the Mohammedan female costumes of present-day Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan. How could the men discover what Lydia actually looked like? That she was actually almost 15 years older than Allan Armadale. Surely this is also a problem for present-day Arab men. Is it the reason they all seem to want to migrate to Europe where women are not expected to hide themselves in such a way?

------------------------------------------------------

    Well, I have now finished all four of Wilkie Collins' great novels. This leaves somewhat of a vacuum. What am I to do? He did write a couple of novels before The Woman in White, but according to the Wikipedia they are not of the same quality. And then after Moonstone he wrote further, but it is said that his later writings suffer from the fact that he had become increasingly dependent on opium in the form of laudanum, and also he began to think of his writings not so much as vehicles to amuse us but rather to instruct us on such social issues as the rights of women and of the downtrodden. Still, I will try downloading his next novel, Man and Wife, and see what that is like.
    I am downloading these things from Gutenberg.org, but there is a problem here. It is apparently so that internet sites can discover from which country a request has appeared by examining the IP address. Thus if I click into Gutenberg.org, they immediately see that the request is coming from Germany. Unfortunately Germans, as a people, often seem to be overly argumentative, defending obscure points of principle to the point of litigation. And so a German publishing house brought a law suit against Gutenberg.org, asserting that they, and nobody else, held the copyright on some ancient text. Thus to protect itself, Gutenberg.org blocks all requests from Germany. Thankfully I have found a way around this difficulty. By using the Tor browser my German address is masked, providing a way to access the site.

Man and Wife
 
   The theme of this book has to do with the strange marriage laws of Victorian Britain and their dreadful consequences, particularly for women. We start off with the following scene. A man and his wife, their daughter of ten or twelve years, and the family lawyer are sitting together in a suburban London house. The man is being horrible to his wife and daughter, sending them away, out of the room. Then he consults with his lawyer, confirming that he is not, in fact, legally married to the woman. The basis for this assertion is that his wife was Catholic, he was Protestant, but in order to marry her all those years ago, he converted to Catholicism less than one year before the marriage. The marriage ceremony was performed by a Catholic priest in Ireland. Yet according to the law of Ireland, the marriage would only have been valid if the man had converted at least one year beforehand. The priest had thus unknowingly committed a felony. If it had been a Protestant priest then completely different obscure rules, known only to lawyers, would apply. Although he was already wealthy, the man was a social climber, having the ambition to enter the House of Commons, assume ministerial positions and then become a member of the House of Lords with an hereditary title. But his "wife" was an inappropriate companion for such ambitions, having been an actress in earlier times. Thus he coldly dismisses her and goes off with his new girlfriend, a snobbish, aristocratic woman. The "wife" collapses in a faint and soon afterwards dies of sorrow.
    A new scene. It is 15 years later. We are told that the man has become a despised figure, smoldering on the back benches of the House of Commons, hated by all. In contrast, the lawyer has advanced to the House of Lords with hereditary title and has become wealthy. The daughter of the first scene, Anne, has become the governess of a wealthy family whose seat is in Scotland. She is loved by Blanche, the daughter of the house, but hated by the stepmother. Blanche becomes engaged to a wonderful young man. But there is another young man, this one of dreadful character, to which, unfortunately, Wilkie Collins, for some reason or another, assigned the name "Geoffrey".
    If we look at pictures of Wilkie Collins we see a small man, weak, almost sickly looking, gazing at us through wire framed glasses. And he makes it clear to us that he is not interested in sports. Thus Geoffrey is the embodiment of the crude, ape-like culture of sport and betting which he perceived to be dragging all that was good in England down into the mud. We are told that Geoffrey is a champion prize fighter, beating the heaviest of heavyweights. He is also the stroke of the Oxford eight, powering them to victory in the Boat Race and becoming the hero of uncouth Britain. But now, at the time of the story, Geoffrey is to represent the North against some other uncouth man representing the South, in a running race of 16 laps around a 440 yard cinder track. That is to say, 4 miles.
    Well. Wilkie Collins certainly shows his ignorance of such things here. Even today, the burly stroke of the Oxford eight could hardly be expected to hold his own over 4 miles of running. What greater contrast is there between a champion heavyweight boxer - think of Tyson Fury - and a champion middle distance runner such as Sebastian Coe? Indeed, Coe has become a Life Peer and sits in the House of Lords. Would Wilkie Collins turn in his grave, given this state of affairs? Hardly, if he knew the outstanding character of Lord Coe.
    But to return to the story, Geoffrey, our oafish mound of muscle, for some reason has told the sensitive Anne that he will marry her, and Anne sets her hopes of the future on this promise. Could it be that she has become impregnated by Geoffrey in some scene which was so bizarre and scandalous as to be beyond even the possibility of Wilkie Collins hinting at it? Or is this a case of the reader letting his imagination run away with himself?
    Thus Anne, on a dark, stormy night in Scotland, runs away to a mountain inn, run by a straight-laced woman who refuses to let any unmarried women into her house. The situation is saved by Blanche's fiance who gallantly tells the people of the hotel that he is Anne's husband, thus allowing Anne to have a bed for the night. And thus we are treated to the next obscure twist of the marriage laws of Victorian Britain. We are told that if a man and a woman asserted before witnesses in Scotland that they were married, then they were legally married. But then, following the twists of the story, it develops that Anne and Geoffrey had written a correspondence from which it appeared that they had asserted in writing that they had promised to marry each other. According to the laws of Scotland, this had precedence over the the other, mere spoken, promise. Thus Anne was, in fact, married to Geoffrey. A dreadful situation since that knucklehead now hated Anne and wanted to kill her.
    But as always, goodness and virtue triumph in the end and Geoffrey expires in a fit of muscular convulsions.

The Dead Secret
 
   At first it would seem to be better to change the title to "The Deadly Secret". But in fact it wasn't really deadly. It was a written message which a rich woman in an ancient house, or castle, in Cornwall, dictated to her maid on her death bed. The maid knew that the message would cause terrible disruption to the husband and the small daughter, Rosamond. But the dying woman had made her promise to 1: not destroy the message and 2: not remove the message from the house. She died before specifying the further requirement that 3: the message must be delivered immediately to the husband. And she threatened the simple-minded maid with coming back as a ghost to haunt her if she did not obey these commands. Thus the maid hid the message in the disused, decaying north wing of the mansion, and immediately fled the house, never to be seen again (at least by the husband). So this was the dead secret; dead in the sense that the woman who had dictated the message was dead.
    I won't be revealing too much about the story by saying that the secret was that Rosamond was, in fact, the child of the maid, since this is rather obvious from the beginning. Thus Rosamond was, in Victorian terms, a bastard with No Name, not entitled to have anything to do with the wealth and ancestry of the family. But nobody knew this except the maid and the ghost of the dead wife.
    15 years pass. We are in a different part of England. Rosamond marries her sweetheart, Lenny, also the heir to a huge fortune and the possessor of an ancient family. (Whatever that means; surely we all have equally ancient forebears.) Lenny has, unfortunately become blind. And the the wonderfully loving, caring Rosamond helps him everywhere, describing things so that he can see through her eyes. Once or twice, Lenny objects to Rosamond's overly familiar dealings with the servants, telling her that she should maintain the dignity of her station in life.
    The happily married couple decide to take up residence in the ancient family seat in Cornwall. Rosamond discovers the document. What is she to do? After all, Lenny couldn't see what was written. And nobody else except the maid who had run away - Rosamond's true mother - knew the secret.
    She immediately tells Lenny the secret. I had thought that he might have made a problem out of this new situation, given the background of his family. But no. He tells her that he still loves her, and they must make the situation clear to everyone. After all, they were still married despite all of those absurd rulings of Victorian justice. They find Rosamond's mother, who has hidden herself somewhere in London. They tell the family lawyer about the situation. He at first tells them that such a document as that which they have shown him would have no legal value. They could just throw it in the garbage and carry on as before. But Lenny insists that the Truth should prevail. Thus Rosamond's family fortune and the extensive properties in Cornwall devolve onto the horrible brother of what Rosamond had thought was her father. The brother, her "uncle", immediately comes to the hotel and tells them that he will take everything and leave them nothing. Both Rosamond and Lenny tell him that they are very thankful to be able to live happily in peaceful Truth, unburdened by Rosamond's false fortune. The uncle, who believes that all humanity is evil and only wants money, is astonished. Can it be that there exists an example in humanity of a married couple that is not evil? After thinking it over, he tells them that he gives them the fortune, and even if they refuse to have it, he will force them to have it by specifying this in his testament.
    I enjoyed the book, as I have enjoyed reading all of these things of Wilkie Collins. But still, as the Wikipedia article says, although this was his fourth published novel, it belongs to his early period, before he had attained true mastery with The Woman in White. Somehow we expect to find some evil characters in a well-rounded story. A book with everybody being so wonderfully nice begins to verge into Kitsch. And so, sadly, I seem to have reached the bottom of the barrel as far as Wilkie Collins' writings are concerned and I will have to find something else to read.

Not Forgetting the Whale, by John Ironmonger

     If I'd known beforehand what this book was about then I wouldn't have bought it. But it turned out to be other than what I thought it was and so I read to the end, finding it to be interesting and enjoyable.
    To begin with we have Joe Haak, an analyst in a London investment bank in its department for short trading - that is, betting on things going downhill - apparently losing his bets, since things begin to improve, thus costing the bank millions of pounds. In a panic he gets into his Mercedes and travels westward, eventually arriving by chance, in the middle of the night, at the obscure village of St Piran on the west coast of Cornwall. He takes off all his clothes, not really thinking of suicide, but is rescued by a whale which happens to be swimming about in the neighborhood. Being washed up on the beach, he is rescued by the villagers. And so the story continues with descriptions of life in the village, life in the London bank, and general observations about all the rest of life.
    But then we learn that, in fact, Joe's analysis was correct. Everything was going downhill. And just after he got into his Mercedes to escape, the markets fell dramatically and the bank won many, many millions. Without knowing it, Joe had become a hero of the short trade. So why were the markets falling? We learn that it was due to a combination of 1) a war in the Persian Gulf and 2) the flu.
    Flu? Corona? Oh no!!! I can't stand hearing the words: Corona, Covid-19, SARS-CoV-2, or any of the other horrible, ugly things which are used to describe the absurd panic which the world has now fallen into. I seem to have emerged into some sort of strange fantasy world, direct out of a B-grade science fiction movie.
    John Ironmonger wrote the book a few years ago; it first came out in 2015, so he can't be accused of contributing to this deluge of fake news which is engulfing the world just now. And in fact he describes what it would be like if we actually had a real epidemic, something like the plague year of the 17th century, not the fake epidemic of the 21st century.

    As far as condition 1) is concerned, imagine what it would be like if the United States decided to blow up the Persian Gulf. This is indeed a real possibility, given what goes on in Washington. Would the world immediately run out of oil? Well, this seems to me to be unlikely. For example in the middle of the present hysteria the world is facing the opposite extreme. There is so much oil sloshing around that, for a time, the price of raw oil became negative. Producers had to pay people to take it off their hands!
    Of course Germany does seem to be heading for collapse as far as energy is concerned. The Greens are taking over the country. The next Chancellor could well be the fellow who is the leader of the Greens, someone with the character of a handyman, a person many women would like to have about the house. He would replace Angela Merkel who is referred to in the papers, or on television, as being the "Mother of the Nation", despite the fact that she is childless. Many years ago when she was the Minister for the Environment, she was a staunch advocate of atomic energy, telling people that she had a Ph.D. in physics from the failed East Germany. But now, during her years as Chancellor, she has supervised the dismantling of the German energy sector, following the winds of change. The Greens have decreed that Germany must shut down all coal-fired power plants and all atomic energy plants. Diesel motors will effectively be banned and petrol motors barely tolerated. Given the impractical, intermittent nature of windmills and solar cells and the extremes of environmental pollution involved in producing and operating them, I suppose the idea is that the energy supply of Germany in the future is to come from two pipelines on the ground of the Baltic Sea which supply natural gas from Russia, shipments of liquefied natural gas from the US, and the burning of huge amounts of trees from the native forests of North America, the Amazon, Indonesia, and wherever else it comes from which is not particularly visible to the voters of the Green Party, in the name of "bio-fuel". As described in the book, the consequences of no electricity are more profound than we at first think. For example water must be pumped through the pipes using motors. Thus if the electricity fails, soon we have no water. And then there are all sorts of further consequences.
    But perhaps, given a true panic, Germany might be saved by Poland, Hungary, and those other Eastern European countries which have had the sense to maintain a robust power network, and which might divert some of it into the German grid.

    Then the second factor attributed in the book as a cause of a worldwide collapse is the flu. Influenza. We think of the epidemic of 1918 which is said to have accounted for 60 million deaths or more. In contrast with the normal flu, it is said that most of the dead were young people in their 20s or 30s. Of course the corona of 2020 is said to mainly kill the geriatric. The world of 1918 was more concerned with the Great War (which was undoubtedly, as with all wars, also a source of fake news in those days). Thus the flu was not particularly mentioned in the newspapers, and it was only afterwards that people thought about the fact that many people seemed to have died of the flu. There was no question of locking healthy people up, or forcing them to participate in a masquerade of masks. After all, the Great War was responsible for such horrors.
    I have often read of different theories about the origin of the flu epidemic in those days and why it was so virulent. It is thought to have originated at Ft. Riley in Kansas. One idea about the strange virulence is that perhaps doctors in those days gave patients massive doses of aspirin, leading to hemorrhaging. Who knows?
    What a contrast all of that is with the situation today. Certainly there does seem to be a virus about, as there is every year. And as with the influenza virus it can be very unpleasant. But is this one any different from the ones we have each flu season? If there are 80 million people in Germany, and if the average person lives to be 80 years old and then dies, then, forgetting all other factors, we would expect one million people to die each year in Germany. The "news" tells us that so many thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or whatever, have Corona. Leaving aside the question of how these cases are actually diagnosed, we might ask: are all these people dying, such that they would not be dying if they did not have it? If so, then there would be a certain excess mortality which would turn up in the general statistics. We can easily check this by looking at the web page of the institute which monitors the weekly mortality in various European countries and regions. There we see that for the regions of Germany which are covered, there has been no excess mortality. The same is true for Austria, Denmark, Finland, and many other countries. On the other hand, in many others there has been an excess mortality, often even greater than that of the flu season of 2016-17, which itself was somewhat more than average.
    And then our local paper printed a short notice, telling its readers that there has been a large excess mortality in Belgium. This is true, but the implied suggestion was that it is typical for all countries in the great pandemic which it has been describing in all the rest of its reporting. Looking at the true story we see that this is, in fact, a prime example of the distortion of news. Or, to use the currently popular phrase, fake news.
    One good consequence of this whole business is that whereas before, part of our routine each day was to watch the evening news on television, now we have entirely stopped doing this. We have found that there are documentaries being shown on other channels, filled with interesting, informative information which is not fake. It is a much better way to spend that hour or so at the beginning of the evening. I haven't yet cancelled our subscription to the local newspaper. It usually consists of two separate folded parts. The first of which is the "news" consisting mainly of what various politicians say about one another, and unverifiable general statements which may or may not be fake; but also the sport is in it which, while being mostly boring, is certainly factual. But the second part has stories of local happenings which are obviously factual. So I suppose we will continue to subscribe.
    Why is it that there has been an excess mortality in Italy, Spain, and especially England, above the usual seasonal flu level? Also we hear of a large excess mortality in New York City. Might it be a consequence of the lockup, where healthy people were forced to stay indoors for weeks at a time as in a prison, depriving them of the sunshine and the vitamin D which usually ends the flu season? This would be particularly true of darker skinned people. Or more to the point, is it simply so that in some places where the death rates are particularly high, people are inappropriately being subjected to "ventilators", which are killing them. And then we read of many people who have real, serious medical conditions, not the fashionable Corona, particularly in London and New York, being refused treatment, thus contributing to the excess mortality.

    In any case, when we are talking about probable causes of the collapse of civilization, it seems to me that people are ignoring the real threat. Obviously the greatest danger, with the highest probability of occurrence, particularly given the madness in Washington, is that a large fraction of the inhabitants of the earth will die in a massive holocaust of atomic bombs.

    At the end of the book the message, or moral of the story, is that people are much nicer than we normally think. Given adversity, people come together and help one another. Or at least people in the nice little Cornish village of St Piran do this.
    Yes, we spent weeks together in Plymouth a few years ago, often going for walks in Cornwall. The people in Plymouth were really nice. There was always a feeling of openness and friendliness there. Wonderful people. But how can we reconcile this with the actions of the State of England? Its treatment of Julian Assange. The dark history of its colonial past. The violent elimination of villages similar to St Piran which, however, had the misfortune to be located not in England, but rather somewhere in Africa or Asia, or even Ireland.

No Longer Human, by Osamu Dazai

     Some time ago I read Dazai's The Setting Sun, and found it to be depressing, showing life in decline for the former aristocracy of post-war Japan. I wrongly thought that the alcoholic brother, Naoji, of that book was a description of Dazai himself. The story was that the daughter of the family, Kazuko, is doing everything to support her sick mother, but then Naoji appears, having survived the War in the Pacific. He takes everything he can get from the mother and his sister, running off to Tokyo to his friends where the money disappears in alcohol, drugs, prostitutes. And when it is gone he comes back for more. In the end he thankfully dies. Naoji determines to have a baby with Naoji's friend in Tokyo, the degenerate author, Uehara. Reading Dazai's entry in the Wikipedia, we see that all of this is based on the true story of Shizuko Ōta, who bore Dazai's daughter Haruko. Thus Dazai saw himself in the sleazy, unpleasant character of Uehara. After reading the present book, I reread The Setting Sun to remember all the details.
    No Longer Human is even more autobiographical. Dazai, in the character of Ōba Yōzō, tells us of his early life. His family, from a district in the north of Japan, is wealthy and powerful, though not aristocratic. He is shy and he finds it difficult to be around people. He does well at school, but hides from others. Eventually he finds a friend who introduces him to alcohol, drugs and prostitutes. He tells us that he feels comfortable sleeping beside prostitutes since he feels that they are hardly human. There are suicide attempts, often accompanied by one girlfriend after another. In one episode, he and the current girlfriend try to drown themselves in the ocean. The girlfriend drowns but Ōba Yōzō, that is to say Dazai, is - unfortunately - saved by a passing fishing boat. His family disowns him, but they organize a friend of the family to deal with him. Occasionally his brother also appears and gives him some cash. He is an alcoholic and a morphine addict. An episode in an insane asylum. And yet there always seem to be young women attaching themselves to him. He even has a wife and three children with her.
    In the Wikipedia article it is said that this was Dazai's masterpiece, and it is the second best-selling novel in Japan, behind Natsume Sōseki's Kokoro. So there you are.

Blue Bamboo, by Osamu Dazai

     Since Dazai is considered to be such a great writer in Japan, I thought I would try something which wasn't just dwelling on the details of his depressing life. This is a collection of short stories. Perhaps you could say that they are in the style of Hans Christian Anderson, but based on Far Eastern culture rather than European culture. Children's stories, or fairy stories (although that may be an inappropriate word these days as language changes). Many are retelling traditional Chinese stories.
    But quite frankly I found them to be boring (as indeed are the stories of Hans Christian Anderson) and some of them hardly seemed to make any sense, stopping in the middle, leaving the reader up in the air. I gave up before finishing the book. The fact that Dazai is so well thought of in Japan is a mystery to me. Perhaps he had a very elegant style of writing which is simply lost in these translations.

Newcomer, by Keigo Higashino

     A murder mystery set in Tokyo. Higashino seems to be a prolific writer who is very popular in Japan. The book is about the murder of a woman in her mid 30s, living alone in a suburb of the city. We gradually learn about the circumstances of her life and the fact that nobody seems to have a motive for killing her. The investigation is led by a member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police who does everything in a routine way, finding nothing. But the real investigation is by Detective Kyochiro Kaga, who has been newly assigned to the local police department. We are told that he is a master of Kendo, but despite this fact, he is always extremely mild mannered and polite. From one chapter to the next he follows one obscure lead after the other, each seeming to have little to do with the case, and the various characters he meets are also all polite, puzzled, and helpful.
    In the end, we discover that the murderer is a polite, mild mannered man who has been too polite and mild mannered in the process of bringing up his son. The son is a spendthrift, throwing away money on an extravagant lifestyle, always expecting to be bailed out by his father.  Thus, given the circumstances and the fact that he has committed embezzlement, the poor murderer was led to his unfortunate deed. Detective Kaga admonishes him for not adhering to the proper ways of education, as for example learned in the hard discipline of Kendo, and the murderer disappears into the Japanese prison system.
    As we know, Japan continues to use capital punishment by hanging. A very sobering experience, different from all the other polite experiences described in the book.

Of Dogs and Walls, by Yuko Tsushina

     The author was the daughter of Osamu Dazai, whose real name was Shūji Tsushima. She was not the one described in The Setting Sun. Rather she was the youngest child of Dazai's actual (second) wife, Michiko Ishihara. Although we read much about Dazai's other girlfriends, Michiko Ishihara seems to be hardly mentioned and instead the present author is always described as the child of Dazai, her mother being thought unworthy of being further mentioned.
    The book contains two stories, the first is The Watery Realm, while the second provides the title of the book. It is said that The Watery Realm is very much autobiographical. A young mother and her small son who sees a plastic castle in an aquarium shop for bubbling the water, and he wants to have it. But it is too expensive. There is lots of water in the story. Tsushina's father's many suicide attempts involved drowning, and the final, successful suicide with the last girlfriend, in a dirty Tokyo canal, took place when the author was just one year old. In the story her mother is cruel to her, painfully beating her with bamboo canes. And so she is always running away from this savage childhood. Yet the mother is mild and loving to the two older children, the middle one of which is mentally handicapped.
    Yuko Tsushina was, for me, a far better writer than her father. The stories have a depth and emotion beyond anything which I could see in the few things I've read of Dazai. And she was honored in Japan with many literary awards.

How We Die, by Sherwin B. Nuland

     Since the Order of the World has suddenly changed into a bizarre new War on Death, I decided to read this book in order to know more about The Enemy. The character of the War is perhaps best explained in this YouTube video by a nurse who was working at Elmhurst Hospital, in Queens, New York, which has been described as the epicenter of the epicenter of the Covid-19 "pandemic". I don't expect the link to remain active for very long. In a time when Truth is Denial, and Openness is Conspiracy, some poor little Winston Smith, working at Google, installing the Corona App into his smartphone so that his benign, loving, and all-knowing Big Brother will be able to protect him, will soon click on the button to consign the video down the Memory Hole.
    Up until about 1990 we had the Cold War, somehow a contradiction in terms, since war is generally supposed to be hot. But it did involve numerous episodes with millions of deaths in far-away places like Vietnam and Indonesia. After 1990 we had a period where there seemed to be no War at all. And yet, as is well known, Nature abhors a vacuum, so that we were soon provided with the War on Terror. Or perhaps we should say the War of Terror, since the Coalition of the Willing was going into far-away lands in order to terrorize people with torture, arbitrary killings, drones, and in the process creating millions of refugees and further millions of casualties. But gradually the people of the Civilized World (or should we say, following George Orwell, Oceania) began disrupting things. Yellow Vests were marching in the streets of France. Hoards of deplorables elected an inappropriate President of the United States of America. Racists and other undesirables in England disrupted the Order of the World with Brexit. How was the World to be returned to a New Normal Order of functioning?
    Suddenly a variation of the corona viruses - which had previously been associated with the common cold - appeared in Wuhan, providing the inhabitants of Oceana with an opportunity for exercising The Hate against Eastasia. And not only in Oceana, but everywhere in the world, using a term associated with the suppression of prison inmates, people were told to Lockdown (although a more appropriate term might be Lockin, or Lockup). They were under house arrest, enforced by police and drones. When allowed out of house arrest, an order of Social Distancing and the wearing of facial Masks was enforced in order to prevent deplorables and undesirables from gathering together and producing more disorder. And thus the world embarks upon a New Normal in its War on Death.

    Sherwin B. Nuland published this book in 1993. Therefore it is somewhat outdated and one-sided. The author was a surgeon at the Yale-New Haven Hospital in New Haven, Connecticut. In the first chapters he gives us a clear picture of what Death is for most people. He describes what he has seen in the deaths of his grandmother, his brother, and various other members of his family, and also the many deaths he has seen in his professional life in the hospital. We are told about how the heart and the entire circulatory system degenerates with age. The various ways the heart fails. And the lungs deteriorate along with the heart. In even the most healthy looking 70, 80, or 90 year-olds, the ravages of death are gradually taking over the body. The End, for many, even most, is a process of gasping for breath with the cells deprived of oxygen and water. Precisely the symptoms of Covid-19, particularly when the death-bed scene is accompanied by hysteria and panic.
    The idea of suicide is briefly dealt with, describing the profound feelings of disgust medical doctors share. Then there are a number of long chapters about AIDS. Yes, in 1993 it was expected that half of the population of the world would be dead of AIDS by now. We are told of the sneaky, underhanded, myriad strategies the HIV virus has to defeat all possible attempts of medical science to bring it under control. But we are also told of the great hope which was invested in the drug AZT. Dr. Nuland describes a typical death by AIDS. The wasting away, the loss of bodily functions, the filth and smell. The puzzling fact that most cases involved homosexual men and intravenous drug users is mentioned, but is dismissed as being irrelevant. After all, AIDS was raging far away through the savage Heart of Darkness in Africa, and it was expected that within a short time the population of that unfortunate, lost continent would be decimated, or even halved. Subsequently it was asserted that half the world would die of Mad Cow Disease, or of the Swine Flu.
    He then describes the aftermaths of violent accidents or even deliberate acts of violence. Often the victim feels a sense of calm detachment in the midst of the most horrible scenes of bodily violence and dismemberment. Why is this? And yet after heroic scenes of hospital surgery, the victim will often awaken into a world of excruciating pain.
    Then comes cancer, and this leads into the main message of the book which the author describes in many ways, quoting poets, philosophers, the Ancients. The fact that we would like to die in dignity. Yet in the hospital there is generally no dignity. He tells us about a case he had as an enthusiastic young surgeon. A 92 year old woman in a nursing home with no family at all in the world collapsed and lost consciousness. She was rushed to hospital where she was revived, and it was discovered that she had extensive cancer throughout her abdomen. She told the author that she did not want to be revived again. There was no reason to hang on senselessly to the end of life. But the young Dr. Nuland could not accept this. He argued, pleaded, threatened her, wanting to perform surgery to "save" her life. After putting the poor woman under so much pressure he said that he would go away for 15 minutes so she could think about it, and he would come back to hear her answer. So she caved in and agreed to the procedure. We are told that upon opening her abdomen the doctor was shocked at the extent of the cancer, hardly being able to repair anything at all. When the old woman woke to much pain her eyes were filled with hatred for her tormentor, and she spent a few horrible weeks in the hospital before finally expiring, robbed of all dignity.
    After this we are told that now, when the author is more experienced and has a better appreciation of the dignity of his patients, he would respect the wishes of such an old woman. But then, immediately, he tells us of the difficulty of such a plan. The woman would die peacefully, but the other doctors in the hospital would accuse him of failing to save her life. Simply letting her die amounts to murder. The statistics of the hospital would suffer. And the hospital would suffer financial consequences. This could amount to the end of his career as a surgeon. And then in a final chapter with the title "Coda:2010", written for a later edition of the book, we are told about how much worse the situation has become in the 17 years since it was first published in 1993. A dramatic increase in bureaucracy; only the financial side counts; he observes with dismay that colleagues proudly display not only their M.D. degrees, but also their M.B.A.s.
    What is the lesson I draw from all this? If you are healthy but have some clearly recognizable problem: for example mechanical problems with the back or the eyes, or getting bitten by a tick and wondering if you might be infected with Lime disease, and so on, then surgery or antibiotics would clearly be sensible. But getting toward the end of life when things are out of control, leading to unnecessary suffering, then do everything to avoid hospitals. Perhaps hospices might be the answer. And make it absolutely clear that you do not want to be revived if you fall into a coma. Otherwise, lots of painkillers.

    Since Sherwin Nuland tells us so much about his family, I thought it would be interesting to see what further things I could find online. There is a TED talk in which he is the speaker. We learn that his family circumstances led him into a phase of deep depression when he was young. Delivered into a hospital in those days, he was due to have a lobotomy performed on his brain, swishing a needle about in his frontal cortex, reducing him to a half vegetable. But thankfully, at the last moment, it was decided only to give him a sequence of electrical shocks through the brain, from which he was able to recover. Another detail of his life is that Victoria Nuland is his daughter; an unfortunate woman who appears to be an important figure in the vested interests of the "Deep State", forcing us into the War on Terror and now the War on Death.