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
Some re-readings
Yangsze Choo:
    The Night Tiger
    Ghost Bride
Stephen King:

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 more or less 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'├ętat 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.