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This year (2019)

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


Arthur Japin:
    The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi
Christian Kiefer:
    The Infinite Tides
Arthur Japin:
    Warlight
Rebecca Makkai:
    The Great Believers
William Boyd:
    Love is Blind
Alex Michaelides:
    The Silent Patient

The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi, by Arthur Japin

     Kwasi Boakye was a real-life person who lived from 1827 to 1904, and this is the story of his life told not as true biography but rather as a kind of historical novel. When reading the book as a novel, the story sometimes seems rather contrived, difficult to believe. And yet in an Afterword the author explains how he has used the personal letters of Boakye and his correspondents, along with many further historical documents, so it must be true to life.
    Boakye's father was the king of Ashanti, a kingdom on the west coast of Africa in modern day Ghana. And thus he was a prince. But he was not the crown prince. Instead his cousin, Kwame Poku, the son of the sister of the king, was the crown prince owing to the fact that in Ashanti, inheritance was passed down through the matriarchal line.
    At the beginning of the story, Kwasi and Kwame are very close friends, doing everything together. They live in great privilege in Ashanti as princes, telling us about their lives, and we see them contrasted with all the slaves in the community. There is a Dutch military presence which had been organizing the slave trade, a fort to hold the slaves which had been bought from the local slave traders before they were shipped off to the Dutch colonies in the Americas and elsewhere. Kwasi's father was much involved in this.
    But then Kwasi's father, the king, decided to send both Kwasi and Kwame off to Holland with a Dutch expedition which had reached their country, presumably in order to allow them to become educated in the ways of Europe and so bring back this knowledge to Ashanti. Thus the two young princes, perhaps 10 or 12 years old, were transported by the Dutch navy to Holland where they were enrolled in a small private school.
    They were treated as princes. Being guests of the Dutch royal family, becoming intimate friends with one or another of the Dutch princes and princesses. And they became highly educated. Somehow the ties with Ashanti became weaker. Kwasi gradually thought of himself as being Dutch, rejecting what he remembered of the life in Ashanti. But Kwame returned. Staying in the Dutch settlement on the coast, he sent written inquiries to the Kingdom, asking if he could come home. But he had forgotten his native language and so his letters were written in Dutch. The King thus refused to answer and wanted nothing more to do with him. After years of vegetating as a guest in the Dutch garrison, he committed suicide.
    Kwasi on the other hand remained in Europe, going on to university in Germany, becoming a mining engineer. He was then sent by the Dutch to Indonesia to be involved in mining operations. But this was extremely unsatisfactory. His superior was an old school rival who treated him badly. He was unable to obtain advancement in his profession. Eventually he learned that the Dutch authorities had decided that it would not be appropriate for an African, a non-European, to be in a leading position in the colony of Indonesia since it was important to maintain the idea that only Europeans could be allowed to be leaders.
    And so much of the book takes place towards the end of Kwasi's life in the tropics of the East Indies, not East Africa. People still respect him as a true prince. He has had a family and children. But somehow he is not fulfilled. Perhaps he could have remained in Europe where he could have followed his profession more successfully as a mining engineer.

The Infinite Tides, by Christian Kiefer

    The story imagines an astronaut, endlessly circling the earth in the international space station. He has a euphoric, almost religious feeling during a space-walk. But then Houston calls and he is told that his daughter has been killed in a car accident. Furthermore his wife has decided to leave him, going off to live with her parents somewhere far away from Houston. He is devastated by all this, becoming wracked by migraines, unable to fulfill his duties in the space station. Only after weeks of delays due to technical problems with the launching of rockets was he able to be sent back to the earth.
    And so we meet him in his empty house in some soulless, half developed suburb of new houses somewhere in the neighborhood of Houston. His wife had cleared everything out, leaving him with a gigantic sofa which he hated. She also left a bare bed and the basics of the kitchen. But he goes to the local diner to eat hamburgers and drink coffee.
    He is alone. Splitting headaches. He drinks lots of beer. He notices a loud-mouthed foreigner, perhaps drunk, at the diner making inappropriate remarks to the young waitress. And then there is a young woman, a mother, wearing tight-fitting clothes, grabbing his attention in the newly built house near to his, separated by a couple of vacant lots. Eventually he winds up in her bed. There are strange scenes. Her business-suited husband returns from some sort of business trip or other and greets him as a friendly neighbor. But it turns out that while the astronaut was up in space he slept with the astronaut's wife.
    The loud-mouthed man at the diner turns out to be an immigrant from Slovakia where he was a technical assistant at an observatory. So he and the astronaut spend late evenings out on the next weed-infested vacant lot, sitting on the sofa which they have moved out there, drinking beer and occasionally looking at stars through an old telescope set up on a tripod.
    The astronaut meditates about his treatment of his dead daughter. He considers that he has a special relationship with numbers. They all have different colors for him. And his daughter experienced that too. So he imagines that she was a genius. But he has pushed her too far. She was supposed to go to a special school for geniuses and devote herself to calculating astronautical things. Despite the fact that she was a "straight A" student in her (normal) high school, she defied him by becoming a cheerleader. And so he went off to space, endlessly circling the world, and she drove her car into a tree, having had too much to drink.
    This depressing story was redeemed by the idea of floating through space.

Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje

    This one takes place in England just after the Second World War. The story is narrated by Nathaniel, who is at first 14 years old. We are not told what the family was doing during the war, but now his parents tell Nathaniel and his sister that they will be leaving for some time, going to the Far East. Singapore or something. The father leaves, the mother stays on for a few extra weeks and then leaves as well. They are not left alone at home. Instead various strange characters seem to inhabit the house.
    Nathaniel takes on a few odd jobs. He washes dishes and gets to know a waitress a few years older than himself and we learn of his erotic introduction to sexual affairs. One of the strange characters about the house is given the name of The Darter, and he seems to be involved in smuggling greyhounds into England in the dead of night in order to manipulate the dog races. Nathaniel becomes very much part of The Darter's affairs, eventually thinking of him as a kind of replacement for his father.
    Suddenly Nathaniel and his sister are attacked by some unexplained, mysterious people, and all the mysterious people who had been living at his house, together with his mother who appears from nowhere, save both his sister and him.
    Then the story progresses 10 or 15 years to the late 1950s. Nathaniel has been recruited into the British Secret Service. He works in a mysterious, anonymous office building in London, working in the archives. He secretly looks up the files on his mother. The story is that after the end of the war she was involved in covering up the war crimes committed by the British, eliminating people who might prove to be an embarrassment to future British history.
    Well, the book was nicely written and it was fun to read of Nathaniel's adolescent adventures. The rest was a bit too mysterious for me. Undoubtedly though, such things are true to life.
    Michael Ondaatje is the author of The English Patient, which was made into a famous movie. I did see the beginning of the movie on television years ago, but after a half hour, the arrogance of the main character put me off and I stopped watching.

The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai

    The story is concerned with the (male) homosexual scene in Chicago in the 1980s. Everybody is homosexual, dying of AIDS. The one exception is a young woman, Fiona, who is the sister of Nico whose funeral introduces us to the story at the beginning of the book. Fiona becomes the caring sister figure to all of these vulnerable young men.
    In order to brighten up this dreary story the author has developed a number of subplots. Yale, not the name of the university but rather one of the "gay" men (to use the currently politically correct euphemism), is employed in an art gallery attached to one of the universities in Chicago. He receives a letter from an old woman, Nora, who happens to have been a great aunt of Nico, living up in Wisconsin, somewhere along that peninsula north of Green Bay. She explains that she was living in Paris back in the 1910s and 20s, dabbling in art and serving as a model for a few famous artists: Modigliani, and so on, and that they gave her a number of drawings and paintings in lieu of money. She wants to give it to the art gallery. But her family thinks that these things might be worth lots of money and so they would like to sell them on the open market - a very reasonable idea, given the ridiculous prices such things fetch.
    So Yale drives up, together with his boss who, although married, is of course secretly homosexual, and, during a later trip also with Roman, the post-doc student assigned to Yale who is more or less secretly homosexual.
    And then, finally, the book jumps back and forth between these doings in Chicago in the 1980s and Paris in 2015, where Fiona, now a mature woman, is seeking her long-lost daughter, Claire. This subplot seems to have even less relevance to the story except perhaps in that Claire hates Fiona owing to the fact that Fiona, pregnant with Claire, unfortunately missed the final dying moments of Yale due to the impatient Claire who chose just this moment to be born. And so Fiona, who really didn't want to be pregnant in the first case, did not really love Claire as a child.
    All of this AIDS and HIV business led me to again click about in the internet, and I found a very interesting newer documentary which can be viewed in full in Youtube. Namely House of Numbers.  A young fellow tells us at the beginning that all his life, AIDS and HIV have been constantly talked about. And so he wants to find out what these things really are. He interviews Luc Montagnier, the discoverer of the HIV virus; Robert Gallo, who went on American national television to proclaim that HIV is the cause of AIDS; Kary Mullis, who won the Nobel prize for the invention of the polymerase chain reaction, which is relevant to the western blot HIV test, and many other experts as well. The person at the WHO who is responsible for all AIDS statistics, and so forth. He submits himself to an HIV test in South Africa. Then is told by leading experts in Germany and in the US about all the different tests and why there is no definitive test.
    The puzzle is that, although we were told in the 1980s that we would all be dead of HIV and AIDS by now, in fact we are still alive. In fact, contrary to what we were told then, and contrary to the hysteria in this book by Rebecca Makkai, HIV is, according to a bulletin issued by the CDC (the Center for Disease Control of the United States) for doctors, "no longer defined as a communicable disease of public health significance".
    In the film House of Numbers, Luc Montagnier tells us that he no longer believes HIV alone causes AIDS. Instead, "cofactors" are needed. So what could these cofactors be?
    The film examines some possibilities. During the 1970s and 80s, when homosexuality was declared to be no longer illegal, many young men went to these centers, in San Francisco, New York and Chicago, and lost themselves in an orgy of self-indulgence. In order to make anal intercourse less painful they continually sniffed "poppers", alkyl nitrites, which while producing a euphoric feeling also had the effect of relaxing the sphincter muscle. While attending the parties and bath houses of the scene, other drugs: heroin, cocaine, liquor...  flowed freely while the men coupled with a hundred or more different men each month. Dysentery, even cholera became rampant, not to mention the usual venereal diseases, and yet the orgy went on.
    Is it any wonder that the result was AIDS, and that people who live a moderate life, whether they be homosexual or not, do not develop AIDS?
    But there is another candidate as cofactor which is perhaps even more potent than these "recreational" drugs. Namely AZT and the other "antiviral" drugs. For example in the film, a woman explains that she had tested "positive" to HIV in one or another of the tests. She joined a group of women who had thus been deemed to have the stigma of AIDS. As I recall, there were 17 women in the group and of those 17 only she and two others refused to obey the urgent advice of the doctors to take their antiviral medicines. Now, years later, just three of the group are still alive. Namely the three who refused the medicine. Many similar cases are also dealt with.
    Could it be that many, if not most cases of AIDS are caused by the medicine which is supposed to cure it? Obviously this is a question which society cannot tolerate. Imagine the consequences if say the World Health Organization, WHO, were to declare that AZT was one of the main causes of AIDS. Sorry. We apologize for our understandable mistake of judgement. Please forgive us.
    An impossible idea. And so anyone who questions the received HIV -> AIDS hypothesis, regardless of how famous and distinguished they may have earlier been, must now be labeled an absurd, insane conspiracy theorist who believes that the earth is flat and the moon is made of green cheese. There is a long list of famous professors who have thus been stigmatized.

Love is Blind, by William Boyd

    At the beginning of the book, Brodie Moncur is working as a piano tuner for Channon, a Scottish piano firm in Edinburgh, in 1896. He is summoned to the office of the owner of the company and offered a job in the Paris branch. And the story develops from there.
    He falls in love with Lika Blum, a beautiful Russian woman who is together with John Kilbarron, a famous concert pianist. There are many twists and turns of the plot. Brodie travels about Europe with Kilbarron, Lika, and Kilbarron's menacing brother Malachi, setting up and tuning Kilbarron's concert grand piano to perfection.
    Things become dramatic in St. Petersburg and at a nearby country dacha. Malachi finally finds Brodie and Lika together in bed in the village hotel; Kilbarron's piano is sabotaged before the opening concert, exposing him before the assembled Petersburg aristocracy. There is an early morning duel with pistols by the Neva river, the escape from Russia. And then we follow Brodie in the years that follow. He is lonely, thinking only of the lost Lika. And finally he ends up at the other end of the earth in the Andaman islands.
    Everything William Boyd writes is enjoyable to read. His style can be so varied. Some of the reviewers have aptly compared the present book to a Chekhov story.

The Silent Patient, by Alex Michaelides

    According to the description at amazon.com, this book lies in the category of "thrillers". There are various possible ways to interpret the word "thrill". Some people say that they are thrilled by something if they find it to be good. A common exaggeration of everyday speech. On the other hand I think that a movie which is categorized as a thriller could be expected to be filled with hectic, abrupt images and changes of scene, wild movements, loud music and crashing noises. But how can a novel be a "thriller"?
    I wasn't thrilled by the magnificence of the plot or the dialogue. It was indeed easy to read, but not thrillingly so. But it did have many unexpected changes in what we thought the story was about. In the end all of the loose threads do make sense and we see that the characters are not at all what we thought they were. So it was a fun read.
    Therefore to summarize the plot as we believe it to be through most of the book...
    The "silent patient" is Alicia Berenson, an artist, whose husband is Gabriel, a photographer. They seem to be a happy couple, but at the beginning of the book it seems that Alicia has murdered Gabriel, shooting him multiple times through the head. Afterwards she speaks no more. Has she gone mad, suffering some psychic illness which inhibits speech? Or is she simply play-acting, consciously refusing to speak?
    While awaiting trial, presumably out on bail, she paints an interesting picture, a self portrait, with the title "Alcestis". This is the name of a Greek tragedy by Euripides, first produced in 428 B.C.
    The main character though is Theo Faber, a psychotherapist. He is also the narrator, and so we learn lots about him without at first understanding why he is telling us so much about himself. He also tells us about his efforts to understand Alicia and get her to start talking. Perhaps she will tell us what the story of Alcestis has to do with the murder.