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
Tan Twan Eng:
    The Gift of Rain
Andrew Miller:
    Now We Shall Be Entirely Free
    Oxygen
    The Crossing
    One Morning Like a Bird
    Pure
Andrei Martyanov:
    Losing Military Supremacy
Charity Norman:
    After the Fall
    The Secrets of Strangers
    Five Book Collection
Umi Sinha:
    Belonging
Antti Tuomainen:
    The Man Who Died
Udo Ulfkotte:
    Gekaufte Journalisten
Anthony Trollope:
    The Palliser Novels

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.

The Gift of Rain, by Tan Twan Eng

     A couple of years ago I read The Garden of the Evening Mists, also by Tan Twan Eng. The stories are similar to one another. The Japanese occupation of Malaya in the Second World War, told in the present, in the old age of the narrator, describing a deep friendship in those troubled times with a Japanese living in the country. The narrator of the present story is Phillip Hutton, whose father owns one of the largest trading companies in the country. The family has been living in Malaya for generations, ever since the beginnings of the English presence in the 18th century. Yet Phillip is half Chinese. After the death of his first wife, Phillip's father married the daughter of an important man in the Chinese community of Malaya. And so Phillip feels as if he is neither a part of the very English Hutton family nor of the Chinese family of his mother who died when he was a small child. The story takes place in Penang, an island off the west coast of Malaya at the northern end of the Strait of Malacca, and the first half of the book describes all of this, giving us a picture of what life must have been like in such a setting in 1939 or 40. The English are the comfortable ruling class. Then there are the Chinese with their tightly bound secret societies. We learn less about the Indians and the Malays.
    Phillip is just 17 or 18 years old. He gets to know Hayato Endo, who is always referred to as Endo-san, a middle aged Japanese living on a small island just off the coast of Penang, owned by the Hutton family. Endo-san becomes Phillip's sensei, or teacher. He is a master of aikido, the Japanese martial art which is primarily concerned with defense, not attack. Phillip spends all his spare time with Endo-san, soon also becoming an expert in aikido. But his father and all the English find it distasteful that Phillip is friends with Endo-san. They have invaded Manchuria and the north of China, and news of unspeakable cruelties is everywhere. The Chinese despise the Japanese. Why is Phillip, a half-Chinese, associating himself with such a person as Hayato Endo, an official with the Japanese consulate in Penang?
    The English felt safe in Malaya. After all, how could the Japanese even think about invading the country with its powerful British fleet and army base at Singapore? The war in Europe was far away. But by 1940 the Japanese had conquered large parts of eastern China and also French Indochina (that is, Vietnam). Then suddenly there was Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and immediately the Japanese invaded Siam (or Thailand) and Indonesia, heading southwards towards Australia. Rather than taking on Singapore directly, they landed on the east coast of the Malay Peninsula and advanced across it and southwards, soon capturing Penang, quickly overrunning the country. All of this is described in the Wikipedia article.
    In the days before radar a sea battle was very much a matter of guesswork. With better luck the Japanese could easily have won the Battle of the Coral Sea. Perhaps the Battle of Midway was something the Japanese could only lose. After all, the Americans had been able to decode all the Japanese naval messages, providing a decisive advantage. And in the end, even if those battles had been lost, American industrial strength as it was back then in the 1940s, combined with the world's greatest physicists producing the atomic bomb, would eventually have overwhelmed Japan. But for two or three years, the Japanese occupied the jungles of Southeast Asia. Europeans were imprisoned in concentration camps, there were death marches, the horror of the Burma Railway. A third or more of the prisoners died from torture, starvation, mistreatment.
    Returning to the book, the hated Japanese have arrived in Penang. Endo-san is now the second in command. And what does Phillip do? He immediately walks to the Japanese Consulate, which is now a military headquarters, and offers to help the Japanese in their occupation of his country, acting as translator.
    I had to put the book down at this point. It took me a while to get to sleep that night. After all, when reading a book like this you begin to live in the character of the narrator, imagining being him. What a shock that he is a traitor. A collaborator. These days when we think of Nazi Germany and the invasion of France there is universal condemnation, even revulsion for those French people who became collaborators, sending people to the torture chambers of the Gestapo and on to the concentration camps. And the situation was similar with those collaborating with the Japanese and their torture chambers.
    But I did continue on with the book. After all, what was Phillip supposed to do? If he had done nothing then he and the rest of his family would have been thrown into one of the concentration camps. If he and the family had followed the example of many others and fled to Singapore then they would have experienced the same fate. If they had made it to India, or perhaps Australia, then they would have survived, but their reputation in Penang, the future of the family firm which had been built up over many generations, would be finished. And we learn that during the terrible years of the Japanese occupation, Phillip used his connections with the Chinese triads, giving them information which saved many people. But of course he was also a public figure of the occupation, having to be present at horrible scenes, reviled by the people. And so he emerged from the whole mess in an ambiguous position. All of his family perish; the father decapitated by Endo-san using his ancient samurai sword. And then, when the British forces take over the island at the end of the war, Endo-san is decapitated by Phillip, using the samurai sword which Endo-san had given him years ago, the companion to Endo-san's sword.
    We learn that Endo-san was not evil. He was forced into this position by the fact that his family in Japan were pacifists, jailed and at the mercy of the Emperor's fanaticism. After Phillip's betrayal became known, he was sentenced to death by the Japanese, but his father asked to die in his place. And then rather than the prospect of spending his life in an English military prison, Endo-san asked Phillip to end his life honorably, with his sword.
    A beautifully written book, letting us think about a time and circumstances which seem to be thankfully distant, but which are nearer than we think.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, by Andrew Miller

     A poetic book, set in 1807, a distant, troubled time. We follow a character named John Lacroix. He arrives home in a coach, nearly dead, to be gradually nursed back to life by the housekeeper. It is a comfortable estate somewhere in the south of England. Lacroix is a young man who has returned from the fighting on the "Peninsula", that is to say in Spain. Napoleon's army had occupied the country and was at the height of its strength; the Russian campaign, leading to defeat, was still a couple of years in the future. But the British were already defeated on the Peninsula 1807, with a disastrous retreat and evacuation of the survivors back to England.
    Lacroix, a cavalry officer, was ordered to stay back and wait for stragglers, gathering a ragged group of tired, hungry, defeated soldiers, trudging towards the coast. They come across a village. There are only women and children and a few old men. Lacroix enters a house and collapses in exhaustion. But outside, things get out of control. Villagers are shot, hanged, raped. Eventually, almost in a delirium, he staggers outside and confronts the ringleader, a soldier named Calley, and then they march onwards. (Perhaps Andrew Miller was thinking of Lieutenant William L. Calley Jr. here, and the infamous My Lai Massacre in Vietnam.)
    Later, in Portugal, the owner of the village, a wealthy aristocrat, feels that the destruction of his village amounted to a kind of personal insult which must be avenged.
    Of course, following the system of moral responsibility in place in the United States of America, the consequence of the My Lai Massacre, and indeed of the Abu Ghraib tortures in Iraq, was that only common soldiers were charged, and the higher officers who were directly responsible got away scot-free, even receiving promotion and military "honors" for their crimes. (In fact, according to the Wikipedia, " Three U.S. servicemen who had tried to halt the My Lai Massacre and rescue the hiding civilians were shunned, and even denounced as traitors by several U.S. Congressmen."!)
    But in contrast to this deplorable and corrupt modern system, the owner of the village in 1807 required the sacrifice of an English officer in order to restore his honor. And so Calley was sent off to England to find Lacroix and kill him. He was accompanied by a Spanish officer to confirm that the deed was done.
    At first, Lacroix was unaware of all this. After recovering on his estate he decides to flee to Scotland, deserting the army and the horrors of war, perhaps returning to his earlier studies of music. He travels incognito, hoping to avoid having to continue with his commission and a second posting back to Spain. Eventually he arrives at an isolated house in the dunes of an island on the Outer Hebrides. There is a brother and two sisters, living the life of hippies of those days. And so Lacroix more of less joins them in a little commune on the beach. And he falls in love with one of the sisters.
    But we also follow Calley and his Spanish companion, traveling north in pursuit. Calley leaves a trail of blood in his single-minded, horrible quest, ending in a confrontation on the Dunes.

Oxygen

     Two stories which are only tenuously connected. The main story is about an old woman, Alice, in England, who is dying of cancer. She has two sons, Alec and Larry. The former has come to live with her in her last days. He is a tentative, worrying sort, unmarried, desperately dependent on his mother despite the fact that the mother really loves Larry. Alec has lived in Paris for a year, and now he works as a translator. His job is to translate a play, written in French by the Hungarian exile, Lásló Lázár, the subject of the second story in the book.
    Larry lives in the USA. He was one of the main characters in a television soap opera which was televised nationwide, but after a dispute with the director he was fired and written out of the soap, the story being that he would have to return to England to look after his mother who was dying of cancer, demonstrating how life follows art. Larry has a troubled wife and a troubled young daughter who has expensive hours with a therapist. In fact, Larry is running out of money, and to save himself he has agreed to star in a pornographic movie, produced by a character named "T. Bone", whose sidekick is "Ranch", also a performer of pornographic scenes. This was the most interesting and amusing part of the book.
    But eventually Larry, together with wife and daughter, join Alec at the old family home in England, looking after Alice. There are various friends and acquaintances, all of whom are completely devastated by the condition of poor Alice, dying before their eyes. And so she dies at home, the center of everything, distributing her attentions, affections to one character or another. What a contrast with the usual situation in our modern world where the dying is confined to a hospital with life being prolonged as long as possible, bringing the hospital something in excess of $1,000 per day, the excess being more or less extravagant depending on the country, and being operated on as often as possible, using the most expensive procedures.
    The Lásló Lázár story takes place in Paris. We expect Lásló to visit his translator, Alec, in England, perhaps giving us his dramatic interpretation of the whole situation. But no. Instead we are treated to the parties he gives for his Parisian friends, with elaborate descriptions of food and wine, together with his young, German, homosexual partner. It is the year 1997 and Hungary is free. We learn that in the uprising of 1956 Lásló had been standing guard with a group of students planting a bomb or something. He was given a sub-machine gun, but when a car appeared with Soviet agents, or perhaps Hungarian secret police, shooting at Lásló's best friend, he was unable to pull the trigger. And so now, to atone for this failure, he agrees to take something to Budapest on behalf of a group of Albanians, fighting the Serbs.
    Should we equate the Serbs with Soviet Russia? or even with Nazi Germany? After all, it was the Serbs who were the victims of the Nazis, not the Hungarians. And the present-day Albanians who are living as refugees in northern Europe are reputed to be involved in the most violent and vicious types of organized crime.
    These two stories, the dying of Alice and Lásló's life in Paris, neither come together nor come to an ending. The book was short-listed for the Booker Prize when it was first published. But this is not necessarily a recommendation. Still, Miller writes very well so I'll see what else he has written.

The Crossing

     Maud and Tim are working on a boat, perhaps 10 meters long, owned by the university sailing club. It is out of the water for the winter, propped up on supports. Maud falls off the deck onto the hard ground, survives, and so Maud and Tim come together.
    The name Maud seems to me to be an unfortunate one. How does your parents choice of a first name influence who you are? I can't imagine a Maud being an easygoing, popular person. She has a very visible tattoo on her underarm: Sauve Qui Peut. According to Google Translate, that means "run for your life". Another possible translation might be "everyone for himself". She is studying biochemistry, Tim something liberal-artsy. They get together and have a baby, Zoe. Maud is now working, for a biotech company. Tim is at home looking after Zoe, vaguely thinking about music. Strumming his guitar. They are not married.
    And they aren't really compatible with one another. In some sense their roles have been exchanged. Whereas it is said that women tend to do lots of talking and men are more taciturn, it is Tim who is doing all the talking, accusing Maud of not talking enough. Tim's family are rich landowners. They are constantly half drunk, laughing, shouting at one another. There are dogs, horses everywhere. It takes half an hour for a gaggle of fox hunters together with their dogs to gallop across the family lands. The money flows from somewhere, who knows where? On the other hand, Maud's parents are modest, quiet teachers with little money. Tim's friends have studied literature, philosophy, perhaps law. They went to exclusive private schools in England. They laugh loudly, drink a lot, know nothing of science.
    But at least Tim and Maud do have sailing in common. They buy an old Nicholson 32 sailboat. But when they try to go for a sail with Zoe, she screams, wants to have nothing to do with water. And so on the weekends, sometimes Maud goes alone to the boatyard and takes out the boat. During the week she must work while Tim is at home. Doing what? He becomes intimate with one of the women in his loud group of friends. And then one day Tim has an accident in his car, taking Zoe to school. Tim is in hospital, badly injured, while Zoe is dead.
    Maud rushes to the hospital. Tim's new girlfriend is holding his hand. He refuses to look at Maud. Everyone seems to be saying that she is guilty! She was a bad mother, not caring about Zoe, despite the fact that it was she who was doing the work, earning the money for the family. The half-wit squire - Tim's father - had certainly not offered to pay for their family life. And in fact when a few weeks later she tried visiting Tim at his parents estate, the father, in his half drunken state, shouted at her for being a bad mother - with her tattoo, hitting her so that she falls, telling her never to come back. What horribly monstrous people! Good riddance.

    And so she decides to set off in her sailboat to cross the Atlantic, with no particularly specific goal in mind. We are treated to involved technical descriptions of the passage; the author, Andrew Miller, obviously knows a lot about sailing. The Nicholson 32 does well to achieve 5 or 6 knots of speed, and so Maud travels perhaps 100 nautical miles per day. Thus it will be 40 or 50 days to cross to the Caribbean, or Brazil. But although it is the first half of the year, and thus not the hurricane season, Maud is hit by a huge storm with hurricane winds and huge, breaking waves. The boat capsizes, and even rolls completely over on a massive wave, the mast breaking, battering the hull. It rolls upright but is a wreak, and yet the storm continues. Eventually Maud does survive and she manages to set a jury rig.
    She makes landfall, half dead. But there is nobody. After a day or two of staggering about and then collapsing into a profound sleep she is awakened by a little girl, and she emerges into a dreamlike community of children. Where will she go now? What more does life have for her after all these adventures? A wonderful book.

One Morning Like a Bird

     The author who is English has lived in a number of different countries, getting to know the various ways people live. In contrast to most authors, Andrew Miller seems to enjoy telling stories which are completely different from one another. His experience of Japan went into this book, although it describes a time and circumstances far removed from anything we have experienced. It is the buildup to the catastrophic war in the Pacific in the early 1940s. Having read the book, it seems to me that it is something no Japanese would have written, even though it does have very much of a Japanese feel about it.
    Yuji Takano is a young man, perhaps 25. He is living at home in Tokyo, a student at the Imperial University, studying especially French. His father was a professor, but unfortunately some years before this time he wrote an obscure article on economics, saying that not only the Emperor, but also the elected parliament should have some say in government. And then, as military hysteria gradually overwhelmed Japan, the article was discovered and Professor Takano was declared to be a traitor, a non-person, and he was dismissed from the university. Thus Yuji shares in the fate of the family and must learn to live without his allowance. He has literary ambitions, having published a book of poems which has sold 20 or 30 copies, probably only half, or even fewer of which have actually been read by anybody. He does earn a few sen, or even yen, writing advertising copy for industrial firms. But mainly he involves himself with a Frenchman living in the neighborhood and his daughter, both of which had come from Vietnam some years before to live in Tokyo.
    He is exposed to the hostility of the neighbors who consider him to be a lazy coward for not as yet joining the army and participating in the rape of Manchuria. A childhood friend and next door neighbor who has been there and returned wounded tells Yuji in a night of heavy drinking about the horrors.
    In the end, when life becomes impossible for the Frenchman and his daughter who has just born Yuji's child, they leave for a questionable future in Singapore. Can Yuji follow them to perhaps become a hero in a novel by Tan Twan Eng?

Pure

     Again a new and very different story. This time it is 1785, just before the French Revolution. Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young man from the north of France, of simple ancestry who has studied engineering and who has been in charge of coal mining, is summoned to a room in the palace of Versailles. There he is given the task of getting rid of the ancient cemetery of Les Innocentes in Paris so that it can be converted into a sensible city square. He employs a gang of miners from his old diggings in order to remove all the accumulated skeletons.
    All of this is based on the true history of Les Innocentes. It was the main cemetery of Paris for at least 800 years, up until the 18th century. It is thought that millions of corpses were buried there. They were placed in pits, astonishingly deep. In the book, they are 25 or 30 meters deep, holding thousands of skeletons each. And then the other buildings on the site, the church, the charnel house and so on, were to be demolished. The skeletons were then deposited in the Catacombs of Paris.
    It was a nice read with all the adventures and characters Baratte encounters during his year on this project.

Losing Military Supremacy, by Andrei Martyanov

     The subtitle of the book is, "The Myopia of American Strategic Planning". The author is a Russian who was a naval officer in Russia and, according to the review I have linked to here, he took part in the conflicts in the Caucasus, then in the 1990s he moved to the United States where he now works as laboratory director of a commercial aerospace group, and blogs on the US Naval Institute Blog.
    Clearly he is not a person like me who observes the hysterical goings on of the world from the calm perspective of a quiet house and a flourishing garden, enjoying retirement, whiling away the days in the practice of music. Nevertheless this book, which certainly isn't fiction, tells a very clear story.
    Why is it that the United States has become carried away in an unprecedented level of hysteria with respect to Russia? This is not just a grumpy Hillary Clinton whining about the fact that she lost. It seems to go way beyond that. Perhaps the hysteria stems from the circumstance that the politicians in Washington feel compelled to attack Iran. After all, that is the instruction from Netanyahu's Israel - and those politicians' existences depend upon the good favor of the Israel Lobby. But on the other hand, if the United States were to attack Iran then it would have to deal with the wrath of Russia.
    Would that be a problem? According to the "neo-cons" and the academic "experts" in the "think tanks" of Washington D.C., none of whom have any experience of military matters, and, as shown in this book, most of whom have a ridiculously limited knowledge of Russia and its history, Russia would be easily wiped away by the mighty strength of the good'ol USA. But is this true? Martyanov examines the origins of this American myth.
    According to Hollywood, the "greatest generation" of American G.I.s won the Second World War.
    Well, as a reality check, for the first two years and more of that war, the United States was neutral, making money by selling arms to the adversaries. After Pearl Harbor it did engage in a naval war with Japan, involving some landings on the beaches of the Pacific. The naval strength which developed out of that war is the basis of today's American military. As far as the war in Europe was concerned, England was biding its time, doing nothing except for a few meaningless adventures in North Africa and dropping bombs on Germany. Then the United States sent groups of soldiers to England, dropping more bombs. All of this time Russia was doing the fighting, sustaining millions of casualties. Much of Russia was laid to waste. And yet in the face of this apocalyptic destruction, Russia was able to establish armaments industries which were capable of overwhelming the Germans. Only when the Germans were, for all intents and purposes defeated by the Russians did the "Allies" dare to cross the English Chanel into France.
    So where does that leave us today? The basis of American military might, its aircraft carriers, if, through some magical "time warp" they could be transported back into the Pacific of 1942, would really be able to blow those enemy "Japs" out of the water. It would be a "turkey shoot". And in the present day of 2020 the aircraft carriers are ideal for bombing a few defenseless Arabian countries which happen to surround Israel to smithereens. Also it must be lots of fun and excitement to take off and land a fighter plane from the deck of such a ship. Hollywood and all the "mainstream news" has a field day. Nevertheless, such aircraft carriers are completely exposed to the newest generation of hypersonic cruise missiles which can be fired at them in overwhelming salvos from hundreds, even thousands of kilometers away. Imagine the American hysteria at the loss of just one of those behemoths. A nuclear first strike against Russia by the United States, with its missiles on "hair-trigger" alert, would not be far away, leading to the corresponding annihilation of the United States and much of the rest of the Northern Hemisphere following the Russian nuclear response.
    The situation today is perhaps more dangerous than at any other time since the second world war. Does the United States really want to invade Iran? Does it really want to confront China in a naval battle over a few coral islands half way across the world?
    Finally, Martyanov discusses some of the myths Americans have about Russia. Are Russians an ignorant, brutal people, incapable of producing anything of value? Well, as far as mathematics is concerned this is obviously not true. Many of the greatest mathematicians were Russians. And what about Stalin, or Ivan the Terrible? As far as Stalin is concerned, it is interesting to note that even during the height of his purges in the late 1930s, the prison population of Russia was at most comparable to the vast "gulag" of prisons in present-day America.
    Before the Russian Revolution, the majority of the Russian population was illiterate. Yet within a short time it became industrialized. Education was universal, as was health care, and so on. The fact that the Soviet Union collapsed into the hands of a drunken Boris Yeltsin was not due to the efforts of that B-grade Hollywood actor, Ronald Reagan. The Russian people wanted change, an end to the cold war. Yet, tragically, this unique opportunity for lasting peace was destroyed by those "experts" in their "think tanks" during the Bill Clinton era, taking advantage of what they perceived as being a weakness of Russia. And so with ever new levels of hysteria in America and ever new wars being started by that country, we have been propelled into an even more dangerous second "cold war". It seems that the United States cannot tolerate the fact that it is not the all-powerful, unique military might which alone is able to order the world according to its wishes.
    I'm sure most of the people in the United States, at least those whose brains have not been completely addled by the unified "news" on television and in the newspapers, are not in agreement with this state of affairs. But what can they do?
    This was a very sobering book.

After the Fall, by Charity Norman

     A family migrates from England to New Zealand. In fact in real life the author, together with her family, moved from England to New Zealand some years ago. She used to be an English barrister, but realized that it was taking up all her time, leaving almost nothing for being together with her children. Thus the move and the change of professions.
    The first half of the book was a disappointment. It was a simple-minded sort of writing, not what one would expect from an ex-barrister, swinging wildly back and forth from euphoric descriptions of New Zealand landscapes to sentimental descriptions of English homesickness. Having myself twice changed countries, albeit without family, it seemed to be rather overblown. After all, people also speak English in New Zealand, and they are all subjects of Her Majesty the Queen as well. Not much more than a move from England to Scotland, or to Wales, given the internet, smartphones, and of course jet travel.

    -- Well, it is an unpleasantly long and complicated flight back to England, not to be compared with just hopping in the car and driving for a couple of hours. And of course with the New Normal Order of the World, replete with its rules of "hygiene" (a word beloved of the Nazis), New Zealand has now become much more distant. --

    But in the story things improved - in the sense that things degenerated terribly in the fictional family of the book - making for interesting reading. The daughter suffered the most from homesickness. And we learn that the per capita consumption of methamphetamine in New Zealand is the highest in the world. The author, in her former life within the English legal system, must have been able to observe the dreadful consequences of this drug first hand. And we follow everything it brings to this migrant family.

The Secrets of Strangers

     A small café, somewhere in London on a winter's morning. It is filled with people drinking coffee, eating sandwiches. Suddenly the air explodes with the sound of a gun, detonating. Panic. People escape out the front door. The owner of the café has been shot, and then the gunman shoots him again. Only a few people are left inside. One of them tries to ring the emergency number on her smartphone, making a few beeping noises. The gunman goes crazy, grabbing the phone and smashing it on the floor and then shooting it with his gun, filling the air with another explosion of noise. He screams that all other phones must be thrown on the floor, where he stamps on them with his heavy boots in a rage of hysteria.
    And so we gradually settle down to a hostage drama. We get to know all about the few people left in the café, and about the gunman and his life. Why he murdered the owner of the place. And also we follow the policewoman who is responsible for getting into contact with the gunman, learning much about her as well. Maybe the murdered owner was better off dead. But what awaits the gunman, a sensitive person whose story elicits sympathy?

Five Book Collection

     I've been enjoying these books of Charity Norman and, looking for more in the German version of Amazon, I saw that they offered a collection of five of her books bundled together for only €8.44. (But in the American version of Amazon.com, I didn't find this collection.) After the Fall was included, but The Secrets of Strangers wasn't, so therefore I now had four more of her books to read. As mentioned before, the author was a barrister in the English legal system before moving to New Zealand and becoming a writer. We have the feeling that many of her stories are based on cases she has dealt with, getting to know the different sides of the conflicts people get themselves into.

Freeing Grace: This one is about a couple adopting a baby. What sort of babies are available for adoption? I have no real idea, but in my ignorance I imagine that they might be the products of women who have lost control of themselves, sinking into a sea of alcohol and even harder drugs. Or perhaps they have been taken from wherever they were born, in Africa or in the war-torn countries of the Middle East. And we think that people wanting to adopt such a baby are doing so in order to do a good deed.
    The story in this book gives a different picture. The mother is a very young black woman in London who wants nothing to do with her baby. After giving birth in a hospital she slips away and is picked up in a car by an acquaintance - not the father - who immediately smashes the car into something, killing the mother. The father is a young white man, or rather boy, only 17 years old, whose family is comfortably well off, but quite dysfunctional. His mother has disappeared to somewhere on the coast of Kenya where she is living with somebody else. His father suffers from various debilitating nervous symptoms. The authorities declare that the 17 year old, who spends his days in a haze of loud music and cannabis, is incapable of caring for the baby. Thus it is free to be adopted. And the prospective adoptive parents are a model of all the best that can possibly be expected. Although they desperately want children, they have been unable to conceive. They are also mixed race, the wife being an immigrant from Africa and the husband a pastor in the Church of England.
    Then the mother of the dissolute 17 year old decides that she must take over the baby. She returns from Kenya to England and pretends to be all that she isn't, deluding the adoption authorities and creating a mess. But as is usual in these books by Charity Norman, in the end, reason and sensibility prevail.

The Son-in-Law: In the opening scene a man has struck his wife who falls down, her head slamming onto something, killing her. The two small children look on, calling the emergency services (it seems to be 999 in England; in the rest of Europe it is 112). The man tries to revive the wife, sobbing uncontrollably.
    It is now three years later. He was sentenced to 7 years in prison for manslaughter but is free on probation after good behavior. The children are living with the elderly parents of the wife. They hate the man who has destroyed their dreams and their only child. The man says he loved his wife so much. How could it have happened? His two children are now three years older. The man would like to see them. He loves them. But for the old couple his mere existence in the world, the fact that he has been released from prison, is an unbearable, hateful tragedy.
    Gradually we learn more about the circumstances of the marriage. The woman was not the apotheosis of all goodness, sweetness, beauty and purity in the world as she has been represented up to now, not only by her elderly parents but also by the destroyed husband. In fact she suffered from bipolar disease, earlier known by the more politically incorrect and brutally honest description of "manic depression". She had spent time in mental health hospitals; during times of manic euphoria she had gone off with other men. On the other hand, the husband was a high school teacher whose salary was often insufficient to pay for the damages his wife caused. The specific incident which led him to strike the wife was that he was in the middle of correcting a sheaf of exams, the GCSE exams which determine whether or not a student would be able to attend university. The wife, in a fit of mania, dancing and prancing about the living room with the children, took the exams and threw them into the fireplace, burning them all, together with the hopes of the husband's students.
    The wife's elderly parents remain filled as ever with hatred. But gradually they are forced against their will to allow some contact with the children. The grandfather becomes weaker and is stricken by a stroke. The children love their father, but they are forbidden to express this in the house of the grandparents. And yet as ever, things turn out sensibly in the end.

The New Woman: This was a strange story concerned with things I had never thought about before. We have a man, middle 50s, successful, a partner in a law firm in London with more than a hundred employees, happily married for many years with two adult children all of whom he loves and all love him. Yet in the opening scene of the book he is on a train bound back to London, full of despair, preparing to hang himself in the family's town apartment. He tells us that he is filled with remorse for a secret which is so horrible as to be banned forever from conscious thought. But on the train an older woman in the next seat gets into conversation with him, and she convinces him not to take his life, but rather to confess his secret to his family.
    What is this dreadful secret which must forever remain unmentionable?
    It is that he considers himself to be really a woman. And so he tells his wife. She begins screaming and kicks him out of the house immediately. His daughter is also totally disgusted, but at least she is non-violent. The son seeks him out in the the London flat, attacks him, grabbing him by the throat trying to kill him. The father survives by punching the son in the solar plexus.
    All of this shocked me. I began to get a headache. Are English people really so totally intolerant? Is this the reason they are treating Julian Assange in such a horrible way?
    I wondered what it would have been like if my father had come out and said that he was really a woman. The idea is of course completely absurd and so far-fetched as to be beyond imagining. But what would the reaction have been? I certainly wouldn't have been offended - if anything amused - and I'm sure family life would have become that much more interesting.
    This whole business of gender has become such an important topic. We read that in the United States, schoolboys pretend that they are girls in order to compete unfairly in girls sports and thus become winners. Some famous women athletes have expressed themselves on this subject only to be shouted down by all the righteous defenders of gender equality, or inequality, or whatever they say is their moral high ground.
    And then there is the question of which toilets to use...
    As for me, I have had a beard ever since I was 18 or 19 years old. At times it was quite a full, flowing beard, but now, in my 70s, it has become grey, trimmed to 7 or 8 mm. If anyone asks me why I have a beard I say that I see no reason to shave myself in order to appear to be a woman.
    But in a way, women seem to be at an advantage when it comes to this whole trans-gender business. After all, most women today wear clothes which, say, 50 or 100 years ago would have been considered to be men's clothes. Trousers, shirts, pullovers. Think of Joan of Arc, the mystical hero of France, or even George Sand, wearing male attire in 19th century Paris, and being admired for it. And then think of the poor men who put on dresses - not the masculine kilts of the Scottish Highlands - and who are considered to be sad, abnormal transvestites.
    Recently I read an essay concerning masculinity in ancient Rome. There we are told that a man was defined by penetration, whether of another man, a woman, or a child, in whatever orifice he chose. How disgusting. But married women and free children were off bounds. On the other hand, a man who was a free Roman citizen who allowed himself to be penetrated was no longer considered to be much of a man, and he was sometimes "notionally (and sometimes legally) deprived of his citizen status and masculine identity". (Of course slaves, whether men, women or children, could be legally and freely sexually abused.) Indeed, in Victorian times homosexuality, defined in terms of anal penetration, would have been far more shocking than cross-dressing. But these days homosexuality is universally accepted as being normal. Such are the changing views of society on morality. On the other hand, homosexuality among women, also in ancient Rome, was not even thought to be a thing; after all, no penetration was involved.
    Is it reasonable to define gender solely in terms of sexual practices?
    And what does it possibly mean for the hero of this book to say that he is really a woman? He has been secretly "cross-dressing", but despite this he continues to feel sexually attracted to his wife, and he wants nothing to do with homosexuality. He wants to come out into the open as a woman, dressed as a woman, seen as a woman by other people. Is it a matter of him wanting to play the role of a woman in everyday life, whatever that might be? Perhaps the analogue for a women would be to perceive success in business or politics as being something "masculine", and they would like to break through the "glass ceiling". Or is that thought unfair? After all, our hero is already the totally successful partner in his law firm. He sees no contradiction in his femininity and his success. And success in such an endeavor surely has nothing to do with gender. So in the end, I still cannot understand the idea that he is, in some basic way, a woman. This is just a failure of my imagination. Perhaps the best known example of such a trans-gender person is Bradly Manning, a true hero who exposed the horrors of the American military for all the world to see, and who in prison became Chelsea Manning, a woman.
    The hero of this book begins taking a treatment of hormones in order to change his body, gradually acquiring more feminine characteristics. And in the end he went into a hospital to have an operation to slice off his male organs. I can't imagine that all of this is a very healthy thing to do; to fight nature with chemicals in this way. But it is a free world - at least it still seems to be free with respect to such things, despite all the horrors associated with the New Normal Order of the World with which we are now coming to face. Who knows what we will be forced upon us in the future; what will be forcibly injected into our bodies, whether or not it has anything to do with our own free will?
    In the end the hero has become the heroine and has become accepted by her family and by (almost) everybody in her law firm. The one dissenting lawyer was brought to order, being reminded of the laws regarding gender discrimination in modern day England.

See You in September: A young woman and her boyfriend set off from England to have a holiday in New Zealand. While trying to hitchhike south of Auckland in the rain she realizes she is probably pregnant, but the boyfriend, thinking of his career in the City of London, thinks only of abortion. A small bus with happy, singing people offers to take her onwards while the boyfriend wants nothing to do with these hippy freaks. She ends up in a isolated community, living on the banks of Lake Rotomahana, just south of Rotoura. Everybody speaks only of love. They all love her and she can stay as long as she wants, just helping out in the isolated, rural tasks of the community. She stays, and gradually the essence of the community is revealed to her. The guru is a charismatic man. Over time she realizes that he is, in fact, the Second Coming of Christ. He is worshiped by all.
    The boyfriend returns to England and nothing more is heard from the woman. There is no contact by telephone, email, "facebook", or even real letters. Lake Rotomahana is beyond the range of mobile telephones, and anyway, she has given up her telephone and all means of communicating with the outside world, together with all the savings she has in the world. Trapped. But grateful to be a part of this loving community, waiting for the End of Times together with the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.
    Her parents desperately want to find out what has happened to her. The father travels to New Zealand, and with police escort invades the community, but his daughter refuses to see him. She says he is just disrupting the quiet, loving peace and is introducing hate and disharmony. So he returns to England, a broken man. The marriage of the parents falls apart. The sister degenerates. But in the end, with the father near to death of cancer, the mother does manage to bring the daughter back to England for two weeks to be with the father.
    Seeds of doubt - and sense - are strewn in her mind. When she returns she finds the community in uproar. Jesus Christ tells them that the End of Times has come and they should all get in a small ship on the lake where they will leave their bodies and be transferred to heaven, together with their Savoir. Half of the people follow Christ onto the boat, but the woman convinces the remainder to stay on the shore where soon they witness a huge explosion. A few of the survivors are disgruntled about the fact that they had thus missed out on the opportunity to travel into heaven accompanied by Jesus Christ. But most of the others return to their senses and resume life as a hippy community, espousing everything Green, but minus the religious overtones.

Belonging, by Umi Sinha

     This is a book about the English in India. But it is not one of those books written by nostalgic Englishmen, thinking about the greatness of the lost British Empire. Instead it is written beautifully by a woman with a name which is certainly not English. According to what she writes in her internet site, her mother was indeed born in Kent while her father was an Indian naval officer.
    The story concerns three generations of an English family in India. Of the first generation, the father was a much loved (by the Indian soldiers serving under him) officer in the East India Company in the 1840s and 50s. A young woman travels from England to marry him, and we read of all her experiences in the innocent and rather naive letters she writes to her sister back in England. As things become uncertain in 1857 - the Indian Rebellion - she refuses to leave her husband, and instead accompanies him to the British post at Cawnpore. She is pregnant. And thus we learn about all the horrors of the Siege of Cawnpore. In the story, the husband leaves the besieged enclosure as part of the fighting, is injured, and is saved by some of the Indian troops who had served under him yet had been expelled from the British compound. The wife is hacked to pieces as are all the other women and children. In the story her newborn baby survives, wrapped in a blanket, buried in a carpet bag. But in reality - not in this novel - no baby could have possibly survived.
    And so the baby grows to become a man with a dramatic story of his own, and his daughter represents the third generation. She is sent to England and falls in love with an Indian there who returns to India at the beginning of the Great War, ending up in the Siege of Kut. Again a dreadful mess.
    But despite all of these wartime horrors it was a wonderful book.

The Man Who Died, by Antti Tuomainen

     A change of pace. An amusing bit of nonsense written by a Finnish author. Everything takes place in the town of Hamina. And when reading through the story, describing driving along one street or another, we can follow things using Google Maps, even observing the scenes using StreetView. The story involves someone who is being poisoned. He has a mushroom business. Of course the whole thing is a fiction, but we can locate his business somewhere around this scene.

Gekaufte Journalisten, by Udo Ulfkotte

     I've linked to the translation of this book into English, as it is offered on amazon.com. But it seems to me that it would really only be comprehensible in detail to a German audience since it deals exclusively with the German press and television. The author was subjected to threats of death and all sorts of further attacks for his outspokenness, for example as illustrated by his treatment in the Wikipedia. In the book he describes the many "transatlantic" organizations which determine the public dialogue in Germany these days.
    Perhaps it is understandable that after the Nazi period and the Second World War, the United States was keen to take control of the media here in Germany. And thus in the late 1940s and the 1950s various "associations", "foundations", "organizations" were established by the CIA with the purpose of controlling what was printed and what was said on the radio or on television. Ulfkotte dwells much upon the "Amerika-Brücke", but many other organizations with complicated names come up, often with long acronyms; too many to remember or to tediously list here. And names are named.
    We often used to watch the news on the state sponsored television. Here in Germany every household is required to pay something on the order of €20 per month, that is more than €200 per year. Thus this tax brings in a total of several billion euros each year for the state sponsored radio and television. Night after night, one becomes familiar with the faces and the voices of the people talking about the "news". I was astonished to read of the obscure "transatlantic" connections to the CIA most of these people have. We also learn of the connections the various chief editors of the "serious" newspapers have to these same organizations.
    During the Nazi era there was a process called "Gleichschaltung". Quite literally, we have Gleich = "equal", and Schaltung = "switch". Thus everybody was expected to think in the same way, as ordered by the government. The press and radio in the Nazi period were expected to present a totally unified narrative. And what is the situation today? On the one hand, anybody who dares to use a Nazi word such as Gleichschaltung in present-day Germany is immediately and everywhere labeled a Nazi, a right-wing radical, an anti-Semite. And yet the reality is that all of the media seems to be totally unified - gleichgeschaltet.
    "Trump is a monster". Whoever doesn't say this in the German media is a right-wing radical and Nazi and will be immediately removed from his position. The same holds for such assertions as: "The Russians are bad"; "Islam is good"; "Die Energiewende - that is to say forbidding all coal and nuclear power stations and turning exclusively to wind and solar - is good"; "Electrical cars are good, and gas or diesel cars are bad", "The Euro is good", "Brexit is bad"; "NATO is good"; "Bashar al-Assad of Syria is a monster"; "People should wear masks"; "Social distancing"; "Migrants without papers are good". And so on and so forth. Woe be it to any public figure who deviates from any of these given axioms. They would immediately be crucified by all the rest of the media. And this happens time and time again. Unified thinking; Gleichschaltung.
    But in reality many Germans do not consider the Russians to be the enemy. Not at all. Our Faculty has had many Russian visitors. And many Germans were not happy with the introduction of the euro. Back then, twenty years ago, famous university professors of economics explained how the debt catastrophe of the euro would lead to mass youth unemployment in the countries of southern Europe. A majority of the German population were very much against the introduction of the euro, much preferring to continue with the Deutschmark. But as Ulfkotte shows, in the unified, gleichgeschaltete media, the euro was "sold" according to the dictates of a comercial PR firm, employed openly by the government. Whoever dared to express any doubts was immediately crucified - uniformly - by all media.
    And of course only a tiny minority of people are silly enough to waste their money on battery-driven cars. Yet almost all the reviews of cars in the local paper are concerned with battery cars. If any review deals with a non-battery car, the article is filled with grovelling apologies and assurances that in the future the car maker will change to a battery version.
    In a later chapter of the book, the author describes how various newspapers are owned by political parties. In particular the SPD - the social democratic party of Germany - owns a huge number of newspapers. And so, despite the fact that they only receive about 15% of the vote, the SPD controls much of the media. The local paper which we have subscribed to for many years, the Neue Westfälische - or New Westphalen - is, in fact, owned by some organization which, in turn, is owned by the SPD. But really this makes little difference. The "established", "mainstream" political parties have, as is the case in the United States as well, become gleichgestaltet. They are unified, representing the same moneyed interests. SPD = Greens = CDU, and in the United States, Republicans = Democrats.
    The frightening thing is that this Gleichschaltung seems to have become a global phenomenon. MSNBC is owned - very obviously, with the addition of the "MS" standing for MicroSoft - by Bill Gates. But not only this. The tentacles of his "Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation" seem to be everywhere. And it is surprising how they are able to control the narrative. But that is a further subject, carrying me beyond that which is dealt with in this book, together with all of its meticulous footnotes and references.
    All of this seems to be so depressing that I have decided to turn to other things. Playing music myself (going to concerts has been forbidden in this unified world of the New Normal). And also reading more of those wonderful books of Anthony Trollope from a time of long ago, before all of this.

The Palliser Novels, by Anthony Trollope

     This is a sequence of six novels which I am gradually reading through. They are concerned with the British Parliament, back then in the 1860s; money; love; marriage; and the general weaknesses of human nature. But perhaps money is the most important element, determining everything else. Back then, a simple member of parliament received no salary whatsoever for his troubles. On the other hand, it typically cost a few thousand pounds to get elected. And there were "rotten boroughs" where the candidate, perhaps a younger brother, was simply appointed to the House of Commons by a wealthy, landed and titled aristocrat. In fact the idea of secret ballots was unknown in those days. And only a very small proportion of the male population was entitled to vote, namely land owners, or at least the owners of houses who were sufficiently wealthy. Thus the election in a given borough consisted of those few electors gathering together and openly voting by a show of hands. Woe be it to any voter who openly supported the wrong candidate.
    As far as money is concerned, there is an interesting website which describes typical incomes and budgets in Victorian England. A man with a middle class family is described as having an annual income of something between 300 and 500 pounds. Wages for most people were less than that. For example a steamship captain is quoted as having an annual income of 110 pounds. A suburban bank manager only 75 to 90 pounds p.a. Yet the characters in Anthony Trollope's novels consider themselves poor if their incomes are only one or two thousands a year. Twenty five pounds is a sum so small as to be hardly worth mentioning, and it is a small thing to lend a friend three or four hundred pounds. Only the people with an income greater than 10,000 pounds per year are considered to be rich, and 50,000 was a princely income, much to be envied.
    Putting all this into the perspective of our debased, inflated money using the inflation calculator of the Bank of England, we see that one English pound of 1865 is equated to £126.59 of 2019 money, or about 160 American dollars, or 140 euros. Of course we can't really take this conversion too seriously. Life was totally different back then. No one had the expense of buying and maintaining a car. Or a television, refrigerator, flying with EasyJet to a tropical island on holiday, and so on. On the other hand, in 1865 you had to pay the servants (assuming you were not yourself a servant); there were the expenses of horses, carriages. Also food was much more expensive. It was all "green" and "organic" - no chemical pollutants - gathered in using horses and carts and huge numbers of farm workers who all must be paid. (Thus the food was polluted by much handling, and the lack of refrigeration allowed it to spoil quickly, leading to a far greater incidence of diseases and shorter life spans in comparison with the situation today.) But nevertheless, let us take this figure at face value and say that English money has been debased by a factor of something like 125 between Anthony Trollope's day and now.
    Thinking about Trollope's characters we can take the example of Frank Greystock in The Eustace Diamonds. He is a young barrister and a Member of Parliament with an income of £2,000 per year. Yet he is considered to be so poor that it would be impossible for him to marry Lucy Morris, who has no money at all. Instead he must marry some rich young woman like Lady Lizzy Eustace in order to relieve the financial strains of his life. He tells us that despite the £2,000 and the fact that he lives simply as a bachelor, without a house of his own, only a single horse with no carriage, and mainly eating at friends houses or in his club, he is getting ever deeper into debt. The modern reader, contemplating his £250,000 income (subject to no income tax), finds it extremely difficult to understand Frank's problems and indeed to sympathize with him.
    A suburban bank manager in England certainly receives much more than £11,250 these days. I suppose at least 4 or 5 times that. Then going right up to the overall manager of a large bank (they are called CEOs, or something, aren't they?), someone who doesn't own the bank, but rather who is just a employee of the shareholders, he can expect to rake in well upwards of a million pounds per year, or say the £10,000 of Trollope's day. But then our world has become filled with a flock of true oligarchs. There are apparently thousands of people who are worth more than a billion. Given a 5% return on investments, which was a usual calculation using the real money of 1865, the income generated by a billion pounds would be 50 millions per year, or about £400,000 in Trollope's day. This was beyond the dreams of even the Duke of Omnium in the Palliser novels.

Can You Forgive Her?:
    We start off with a complicated story involving Alice Vavasor and her first cousin, George Vavasor. George's sister Kate is doing everything in order to try to have Alice marry George. Apparently it was thought to be quite normal for people in those days to marry their first cousins. Alice has £400 per year, that is, assuming 5% p.a. return on capital, she has a fortune of £8,000, or in terms of our modern, inflated money, about £1,000,000. George has zero, or even worse, he has large debts. He is also a horrible, sometimes violent man. Thus Alice has gotten herself engaged to the boring John Grey, living in a comfortable country house near Cambridge, immersed in his books and the academic life. John Grey also has a very much larger fortune than Alice, but we are not told exactly how large it is. Somehow Alice decides for the "good of the Vavasor family" to dump the sensible John Grey and get engaged to cousin George, giving him most of her money, say £6,000, thus leaving her with only two thousand. George manages to get himself a seat in Parliament for the district of Chelsea, for which he must pay most of the money Alice has promised him in bribes, leaving him further in debt.
    All of this makes a rather unpleasant, grubby little story which is hardly lifted by Trollope's elegant, amusing prose. In those days these novels were published in installments, developing from month to month, and I imagine that Trollope was making somewhat of a false start here. But soon things pick up. Alice is invited to visit a more distant cousin, Lady Glencora. She is very rich. And she is married to the up and coming Plantagenet Palliser, the future Duke of Omnium and the great hope of the Liberal Party in the House of Commons. But he works from dawn till dusk - or even till late in the night - preparing his great projects and speeches for Parliament, leaving Lady Glencora to her own devices. And she, with all her riches, had really wanted to marry the degenerate but exciting Burgo Fitzgerald, but had been pressured into marrying Plantagenet.
    Well, I don't want to spoil the book by describing the whole plot. Since I didn't read the Wikipedia entry for the book until after I had finished it, I read on from page to page, anxiously anticipating the outcome. Will Alice throw herself away to the horrible George? Will Lady Glencora leave Plantagenet in the lurch, running away with the degenerate Burgo? But I will say that now, when I am writing this passage, I have already finished the first three of these novels, and it is no secret to say that Lady Glencora has emerged to be perhaps the most attractive and fashionable woman in all of London.

Phineas Finn:
    Phineas is a young man from Ireland, living in London, studying to become a barrister. He has no income and lives from the allowance his father, a medical doctor, sends to support him. He has joined a London club where he meets various politicians of the "radical" or liberal party which is in power at the time in England. Almost half as a joke they tell him that he could easily become a member of Parliament if he stood for the seat of Killaloe, in County Clare, which is controlled by the local Lord Tulla. The brother of Lord Tulla is the sitting member, but Lord Tulla has become angry with him for one reason or another and thus he is happy to appoint Phineas in his place.
    Phineas' sweetheart back in Killaloe is Mary Flood Jones, but he is soon caught up in all the excitement of parliamentary life in London and meets and falls in love with one wealthy heiress after the other. It would be convenient for him to marry one of these beautiful young London socialites since he is still existing on the meager allowance his father sends him. But gradually he is admitted into the inner circles of power and hobnobs with all of the important dukes and earls of the liberal party. He is appointed Undersecretary for the Colonies and has a large, elegant office and an income of £2,000. But it is a political appointment, dependent on the liberals remaining in power. And Lord Tulla has become reconciled with his brother, leaving Phineas in the lurch. Should he try for a different seat, somewhere in England? Should he marry the exotic Madame Max Goesler? And what about the warm, lovable Mary, back in Killaloe?

The Eustace Diamonds:
    A change of pace. This one has little to do with the British Parliament although some of the characters in the first two books, such as Lady Glencora, do make their appearances.
    To begin with we have Lizzy Greystock who is vaguely and distantly related to some sort of aristocratic branch of her family. She is a young woman, universally thought to be very beautiful, perhaps not yet twenty years of age. And she loves her jewelry. A sick, wealthy, older man, the head of an ancient Scottish family, Sir Florian Eustace, marries her. They travel through London onto the Continent for their honeymoon, and on the way, Sir Florian adorns Lizzy's beautiful neck with a magnificent diamond necklace which has been in the family for generations, valued at £10,000. Or £1,250,000 in the debased money of modern times. Sir Florian quickly expires on the Continent, but at least he did have the energy beforehand to impregnate Lizzy with the future heir to the Eustace title - an Earl or Duke or whatever it was. And so Lizzy returns to England to bear her infant son and to discover what has been left to her in terms of Sir Florian's will.
    Of course in the end her son, if he reaches maturity, will inherit everything. But in the meantime Lizzy may live in the family's Scottish estate, she is given all the paraphernalia to be found in the castle, and she is allowed an income of £4,000 p.a. for the duration of her life. But the family lawyer in London, Mr. Camperdown, who has been handling the family affairs for generations, is disgusted about the fact that Sir Florian, in his weakness and dissipation, has brought Lizzy, this calculating fortune-hunter, into the family. How dreadful that she has been given so much. And she tells him that the diamonds are hers. They were given to her, to be her possessions, by her poor, dear late husband.
    It is Mr. Camperdown's belief, his obvious and sure knowledge, that the diamonds are a family "heirloom", and thus belong to the family, not to Lizzy. But Lizzy refuses to give them up. She keeps them about her, away from the grasping hands of Mr. Camperdown.
    Legal opinions are sought. What is the definition of an "heirloom"? The astute legal authority, Mr. Dove, gives us a complicated, flowery opinion which is exceedingly ambiguous, perhaps favoring, but at least encouraging Lizzy. In the meantime, one male suitor after another seeks her hand and her money. Her cousin Frank (who we have mentioned above) is also involved - in an ambiguous manner. In other circumstances Lizzy would have become a wonderful actress. She subjects these suitors, and everybody else, to various dramatic and highly emotional scenes. The diamonds become stolen, or perhaps not stolen. Almost all the characters in the book are shown to be bad except for poor Lucy Morris, and Lady Fawn and her daughters. We are left undecided about Frank.