This year (2023)

Previous years:  2022; 2021; 2020; 2019; 2018; 2017; 2016; 2015; 2014; 2013; 2012; 2011; 2010; 2009; 2008; 2007; 2006; 2005

David Mitchell:
    The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet
Abir Mukherjee:
    A Rising Man
    A Necessary Evil
Ovidia Yu:
    The Mimosa Tree Mystery
    The Frangipani Tree Mystery
    The Betel Nut Tree Mystery
    The Paper Bark Tree Mystery
James Nestor:
J.L. Heilbron:
David Grann:
    The Lost City of Z
Diana Setterfield:
    The Thirteenth Tale
Shion Miura:
    The Easy Life in Kamusari
Stacy Schiff:
    Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov): Portrait of a Marriage
Vladimir Nabokov:
    Pale Fire
Mikhail Lermontov:
    A Hero of our Time
Vladimir Nabokov:
    The Real Life of Sebastian Knight
Namrata Patel:
    The Candid Life of Meena Dave
Alba de Céspedes:
    Forbidden Notebook
    Parisian Days
Edward Chisholm:
    A Waiter in Paris
Derek Wilson:
    The Mayflower Pilgrims
Paul Strathern:
    The Other Renaissance
Elizabeth Kostova:
    The Historian
    Days in the Caucasus
Jim Beaver:
    Life's That Way
Olivier Todd:
    Albert Camus: A Life
Albert Camus:
    The Plague
John Pomfret:
    From Warsaw with Love
John Derbyshire:
    Prime Obsession
Claire Tomalin:
    Mrs Jordan's Profession
Vincent Bevins:
    The Jakarta Method
Claire Tomalin:
    Jane Austen: A Life
Scott W. Atlas, M.D.:
    A Plague Upon Our House
Barbara Savage:
    Miles from Nowhere
Anthony Kaldellis:
    A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities
Masha Gessen:
    Perfect Rigour
Claire Tomalin:
    The Young H.G. Wells
Roger Bannister:
    The First Four Minutes
Dr. Ben Cave:
    What We Fear Most
Ian McEwan:
John Galsworthy:
    Five Tales
Joseph Conrad and F. M. Hueffer:
Arthur Bryant:
    Unfinished Victory
Bobbi Gibb:
    Wind in the Fire
Rob Dunn:
    Never Out of Season
Sebastian Barry:
    Old God's Time

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, by David Mitchell

     When the Portuguese arrived in Japan at the end of the 16th century, besides commerce, they brought numbers of Catholic priests whose mission it was to convert the natives to Christianity and so to "save" them.
    Soon the Japanese became aware of these subversive intentions, got rid of those who had become "saved", and eventually cut off all contact with the Portuguese. A canal was dug across a small peninsula in Nagasaki Harbor, creating a small island which was named Dejima. It measured only 120 by 75 meters and it was connected to the mainland by a bridge. After 1641 only Dutch traders were allowed to use Dejima, and except for special purposes - paying yearly homage to the Shogun in Edo - they were not allowed to set foot on Japanese soil. The bridge was guarded night and day. The Dutch traders were not allowed to learn the Japanese language. Instead there were official Japanese translators. Everything on the island was under strict Japanese control. Dutch ships came perhaps once each year, sailing up from Batavia, hopefully not to be lost in a Typhoon or taken by pirates or enemy ships. Before setting foot on Dejima the Dutch traders or officials were required to surrender all books or objects having anything to do with Christianity, to be stored away by Japanese officials until the time they left. All Christian ceremony was strictly banned on the island.
    The book is a novel set against this background. The author also wrote Cloud Atlas, a book I read a few years ago and which was made into a movie staring Tom Hanks. As we could thus expect, the story involves unpleasant characters doing unpleasant things. I suppose David Mitchell has studied the history of Dejima to such an extent that much of the detail must be true to life. After all, imagine what it must have been like confined in such a small space for years at a time, uncertain about the fate of the next possible Dutch ship that might arrive in a year or two.
    The protagonist is Jacob De Zoet, a book keeper who has been sent by the Dutch East India Company to investigate possible corruption on the island. It turns out that the most corrupt person is his own supervisor. And then we have a story about the abbot of a monastery up on a mountain near Nagasaki containing monks and "sisters" who have been saved from prostitution, or something. They are impregnated by the monks, and the resulting babies are sacrificed in some sort of ritual aimed at prolonging the life of the abbot, or perhaps also some of the chosen monks. We are not told whether the monastery was devoted to Buddhism, Shintoism, or some other religion. Surely all of this is rather far-fetched. Could the author be telling us about some strange aspects of ancient Japanese culture? In the midst of all of this an English frigate cruises into Nagasaki Harbor and takes a few pot shots at Dejima, blowing up the buildings before sailing away. Judging from the Cloud Atlas, such stories must be a typical device of the author. In the end we have an unfulfilled, distant love story of De Zoet and Ogawa Uzaemon, an angelic Japanese woman.

A Rising Man, by Abir Mukherjee

     This is a murder mystery taking place in India in the early 1920s. But who could write such a book? An English person would be accused of romanticizing English colonialism, the "Raj", and an Indian person would become lost in transcendental philosophical thoughts on the mysteries of India.
    As his name implies, the author is of Indian descent, yet he grew up in Scotland and lives in England. And so he can write stories about the India of those days as he sees it, unburdened by all of this politically correct baggage. The protagonist is Captain Sam Wyndham, an Englishman who has spent four years in France in the Great War, in the trenches, but also in military intelligence under Lord Taggert who is now Commissioner of Police in Calcutta. Wyndham was a policeman before and after the war with Scotland Yard, and so Taggert has asked him to come to India to take up a position with the Indian Imperial Police. Wyndham's sidekick is Sargent Banerjee, whose forename is Surendranath, something which the British find to be unpronounceable, and so he has been called "Surrender-not" ever since he joined the imperial police. Surrender-not is of the Brahman caste and his family lives in a huge palace-like mansion somewhere in Calcutta. But they have disowned him, owing to his connections with the British. The author has written a whole series of novels based on these characters, and this is the first in the series.
    A highly placed British civil servant is found stabbed to death outside a brothel in Black Town, the slum to the north of Calcutta, separated from White Town where the mansions and palaces of the British and the wealthy Indian population live. Was it a gang of terrorists whose aim was to achieve independence for India? Wyndham's assistant, Digby, has an informer who leads him to Sen, a terrorist who has been on the run for years. But Sen tells Wyndham that he has become a disciple of Gandhi. He now rejects violence and seeks independence through peaceful means. He is quickly whisked away by Military Intelligence to be hanged a day or two later, satisfying the general opinion of White Town. Nevertheless Wyndham and Banerjee investigate further, eventually coming to the truth of the matter in the highest places.

A Necessary Evil , by Abir Mukherjee

     Taking a look at the map of India as it was in 1920, we see that at least a third of it was made up of princely states, or kingdoms, some of which were larger than England itself. We are told that at the time of Independence in 1947, there were 565 of them. The story in this book concerns Sambalpore, an imaginary and extremely rich princely state with extensive diamond mines. Our intrepid pair, Captain Sam Wyndham and Sargent Banerjee, are riding in a Rolls Royce with the Crown Prince of Sambalpore in Calcutta. Suddenly a man in traditional Indian clothing with his face covered with ash and whatever else it is jumps in front of the car and shoots the Crown Prince with a revolver. Wyndham is able to follow him and the assassin points the gun at his own head, pulls the trigger and commits suicide.
    And so Wyndham and Banerjee travel to Sambalpore to find out who was responsible. As a friend of the Crown Prince in his days as a schoolboy in England, Banerjee is invited to attend the funeral. And Wyndham takes a holiday to accompany him. After all, they cannot violate the sovereignty of Sambalpore by conducting their own investigation. Nevertheless, the Maharaja does ask them to do all they can to find the murderers. The British Ambassador has cabled the Viceroy, and has been instructed to tell Wyndham and Banerjee to leave Sambalpore immediately and report back to Calcutta. They ignore this and so we have a story of palace intrigues, a harem 120 strong producing well over two hundred progeny of the Maharaja, besides his three official Maharanis and only two official sons. Was it that other prince who was behind the murder? What of the young English woman who was scandalously in love with the Crown Prince? Was it the head eunuch? Was it the Prime Minister cooking the books on diamond sales? We ride about the place in all those Rolls Royces, and especially in a Mercedes Simplex, following the investigation.

The Mimosa Tree Mystery, by Ovidia Yu

     The author is a native of Singapore and is writing about Singapore. The story begins with the narrator, Su Lin, together with everybody else in her house and also all the neighbors being forced at gunpoint out into a field to stand for hours, waiting for something horrible to happen. It is 1943 or so and the Japanese Gestapo, or kenpeitai, are rounding people up to transport them to their torture chambers. Su Lin's uncle is taken away. A hooded informer with loose clothes and a small slit for the eyes to remain anonymous, points at random people. Suddenly Su Lin recognizes the way the figure is walking and calls out who it is, saying that the woman informer is only pointing at people for personal reasons of revenge. Rather than being shot or slammed in the face with a rifle butt, the commanding officer of the kenpeitai, Hideki Tagawa, steps out from behind a truck and takes Su Lin aside, speaking to her. It seems he knows her, and he takes her to the main headquarters of the Japanese Occupation of Singapore where she agrees to work for them as a translator. One of the neighbors, a man of Arab descent living in an expansive mansion, has been murdered. Su Lin comes from the neighborhood. Her family is an important and powerful Chinese clan, the Chens, controlling much of the business of the island, and she speaks Japanese, English, Malay, and some sort of Chinese dialect as well, fluently. It is agreed that Su Lin's uncle will be freed if she is able to find out who the murderer was.
    As we get into the story it seems that the Japanese would like to take on the role of the English who had been driven from Sngapore. The Japanese are no longer mindlessly killing people, throwing them into concentration camps. Now they would like to pacify the population, establish reliable systems of government.
    The plot of the story is derived from the real-life Operation Jaywick. A group of 14 commandos took a small Japanese fishing boat and sailed from Western Australia to Singapore, disguised as Japanese fishermen. In the night they attached magnetic explosive mines to the hulls of seven small ships. They were cargo and tanker ships. No warships. Three were sunk, but one of those was salvaged; the other four ships only had relatively minor damage. The commandos then sailed back to Australia to be greeted as heroes. Things were not so happy in Singapore. The Japanese could not believe that such an attack could be mounted from so far away. It must have been "terrorists" in the local population. Hundreds of people were rounded up and horribly tortured and killed. Extremes of suffering for such minor, even meaningless results.
    The story of the book changes these details. Most of the ships have become warships. The one exception is a cargo ship containing some sort of treasure being transported to the Japanese motherland, and the murdered Arabian had something to do with stealing it. In the end it turns out that the supreme Japanese commander on the island was behind everything.
    But more than this, Hideki Tagawa asserts that Su Lin is his cousin. Her mother (both her parents are long since dead) was Tagawa's long lost sister. Su Lin hates him and she hates the Japanese. Surely this is just an absurd story he has made up to manipulate her. But he shows her a photo taken when he was a child and his sister was a young woman. She recognizes him in the photo and sees herself in the image of the sister.
    Was the picture "photo-shopped" using whatever means they had in those days for cutting and pasting photographic film? If so, who was the model in the photo looking so like Su Lin? On the other hand, although this book was advertised in amazon as the "Su Lin Series Book 1", it seems that it is not really the first book of the series. In fact the first book is "The Frangipani Tree Mystery" which is supposed to be the "Crown Colony Book 1" of the author. I have now read that book and it is clear that it gives much of the background to the present story. But one thing does remain a mystery. In the Crown Colony Book 1 it is mentioned in passing something about Su Lin's various aunts on her mother's side. It is certainly not said that they are all Japanese women. Also it is not implied that they are the Japanese prostitutes which are mentioned in the Betel Nut Tree Mystery (Crown Colony Book 2). No. It is implied that they are part of the Chinese community. I suspect that this is an unintended mystery, and if it were to be pointed out to the author she would tell us that it of no importance.

The Frangipani Tree Mystery
     This is the first book in the series. It is 1936 and Su Lin has finished school, having passed an exam to obtain the General Cambridge Certificate. Su Lin's family expect her to marry and become a part of the Chen clan, having children, cooking, cleaning. But she wants other things. Perhaps to become a reporter or at least a secretary. The sister of the Governor, Miss Vanessa Palin, is more or less in charge of the school. She also believes that women can do more than simply sit at home and so she arranges a possible job for Su Lin as a housekeeper for Chief Inspector Le Froy, the head of the police in Singapore, possibly leading to further opportunities. But suddenly the interview with Le Froy is interrupted with the news that Charity Byrne, a young woman who had been brought over from Ireland to look after the mentally retarded daughter of the Governor, has fallen from a balcony of the Governor's mansion, killing herself. Le Froy drives quickly to the scene together with Su Lin. It is soon established that the body of Charity has a knife wound in its side.
    Unusually for a "native", Su Lin is allowed to enter the inner rooms of the mansion along with Le Froy. She wanders out and finds the daughter who has retreated somewhere into the forest, establishes a rapport with the retarded young woman and ends up living in the house for weeks, looking after her. And so she is able to observe things from the inside. The seemingly idle, useless Governor's son. The always correct Miss Vanessa. The Governor's wife who has grown fat, angry with everything, especially the "black" natives and the tropics in general, and the Governor himself who does more than simply admire attractive young women.
    All of this leads to an explosive end which Su Lin survives to become the valued assistant of Chief Inspector Le Froy.

The Betel Nut Tree Mystery
    King Edward VIII abdicated from the throne of England at the end of 1936 in order to marry the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. Something which was considered a scandal. The story of this book imagines a more or less analogous business taking place in Singapore. We have the son of an aristocratic English family arriving with his American divorcee fiancee, together with her small son and a further retinue of various characters. The prospective groom laughs and plays practical jokes, inconveniencing other people. Suddenly he is found dead in the hotel. And so we are introduced to a strange collection of unpleasant people. The fiancee is extremely, offensively egocentric. There is the best friend of the murdered man who is perhaps in love with the fiancee. And then the best friend of Su Lin falls in love with that best friend. Eventually he also dies. The father-in-law of the prospective bride seems to be only concerned with his grandson. But is it really his grandson? Some of the scenes in the hotel resemble a slap-stick comedy. I began to wonder why I am reading this, but I did read through to the end. It was a diversion.

The Paper Bark Tree Mystery
     It is now one or two years later. The Japanese have invaded China and are reported to be committing atrocities. Yet the English administration of Singapore forbids any criticism of Japan for fear of offending the Japanese. Le Froy has been trying to keep track of suspicious Japanese activities in Malaya, but he has been disciplined for doing this. He has lost his position. Various administrators have been brought in from India. They are only concerned with putting down the Indian "terrorists" who are seeking Indian independence. All Indians in Singapore are considered potential terrorists and are arrested, or at least brought in for questioning. The person who has replaced Le Froy has fired Su Lin, saying that no natives are to be trusted. But then he is found one morning murdered in the "shack" where the police records are kept...
    Why am I reading this stuff?

    Reading a novel transports us out of ourselves into an imaginary story, a dream, showing us what life might be like in a different world. This might be pure diversion, especially if it's a nice story. Or we might think of problems with life which we hadn't thought about before. And then we might find real life to be not so pleasant and hope for a story which brings us out of this real world.
    And so I'm not really in the mood for a story which is depressing or just plain frivolous and silly.
    The German Foreign Minister - that seemingly immature, thoughtless woman, Annalena Baerbock - has announced to the world in the forum of the European Parliament that Germany is at war with Russia. German battle tanks are to be rolling through Ukraine again in the direction of Stalingrad (or Volgograd) as if we are in a time-warp of 80 years; it is January 1943 and the Wehrmacht is on the move, led on by a modern-day goddess of victory, Germania, saving the Earth, if not from carbon dioxide, at least from the scourge of Slavic hoards. No thought is given to how this war has been provoked over the last 15 or 20 years; about the deceptions of that woman before her, Mrs. Merkel, pretending to guarantee the Minsk agreements. And so hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are being sacrificed for nothing. The newspapers, television, radio in Germany are saturated with a single, unified clamor for more war, more weapons, aircraft, rockets, longer range. Blow those Russians to smithereens!
    As more and more longer range rockets are thrown into the fight we can imagine what will happen as the salvos increase. How are the Russians to distinguish a salvo of "conventional" rockets from a salvo of atomic bombs in a massive "first strike"? After all, various elements in Washington have been openly fantasizing about how wonderful such a thing would be. There are hundreds of American atomic bombs stationed in Germany. Heaven knows how many are in Poland and the Baltic countries. The Russians would only have 2 or 3 minutes to decide whether or not to quickly launch their counter-strike before it would be hit by the incoming atomic bombs. There is no time. The launch decision will be decided automatically by computer remote control. Life has become an absurd theater of horror. Will we survive this madness?

Breath, by James Nestor

     After all those thoughts this book is a breath of fresh air. What can we say about breathing? We all do it. Otherwise we wouldn't be alive. It's trivial. As far as medicine is concerned (according to the book, and I can well believe it is true) it doesn't matter how you breathe: through the nose, the mouth, through a tube, it's all the same. Just draw air into the lungs and blow it out. Nothing could be simpler.
    But how can some people hold their breath for 10 minutes, or free dive in the ocean for minutes at a time? The book doesn't tell us how they do this. But it does tell us about the one very basic thing which many people no longer do. Namely:
Beginning in 1830, the painter George Catlin traveled among the Indians - or Native Americans - living with different tribes throughout the Americas. He admired their perfect physiques, the symmetry of their faces and their general physical health. And everywhere he was told that this was due to breathing through the nose, not the mouth. Breathing through the mouth leads to congestion throughout the head and all sorts of different consequences which are explained in the book.
    Some time ago I did look at a video of someone giving a talk about the Buteyko method which also emphasized the importance of breathing through the nose. But it also involved stopping breathing for as many seconds as possible, holding the breath until it became uncomfortable. Something about carbon dioxide. The instructor said that mouth breathing causes crooked teeth, asthma, colds, and all sorts of other things. But the remedy with all that breath holding seemed so unpleasant. I've now made it to 75 years old and I'm still Ok with breathing the way I always have, so why bother?
    James Nestor gives a much broader view of all of this. Not breathing properly through the nose might have much to do with it, but crooked teeth also result from soft, mushy, overly processed food and no chewing. Perhaps processed sugar not only ruins the teeth but distorts much else of the body's metabolism. As the facial bones degenerate, becoming smaller and thinner, the eyes sag, become baggy. The jaw recedes.
    We are then told of the mechanism the body has for distributing oxygen throughout the system. It is regulated by carbon dioxide. This is the Bohr effect. If there is not enough carbon dioxide in the blood then the amount of oxygen being transported to the cells of the body decreases. Therefore we should breath slowly through the nose allowing the carbon dioxide in the blood to reach a healthy level. The example of athletes being tested on an ergometer - an exercise machine - is described. In the first test they breathed "normally", gasping for breath through the mouth as well as the nose. Then the test was repeated with only nose breathing and they were astonished to find that they then performed better.
    I found this difficult to believe. I usually jog about 5 or 6 kilometers, which I run a couple of times each week. In the middle is a little hill and I'm always totally out of breath after climbing it. I have to walk for a few minutes to get my breath back, breathing heavily, before continuing to run. And so, inspired by the book, I decided to see how far I could get by only breathing through the nose. It is winter here, cold, wet, so the eyes water, going through the nasolacrimal duct to the nose, restricting nose breathing even more than is otherwise the case. I had expected to have to gasp for breath after only a hundred meters or so, like trying to hold my breath for a minute or more. But no! I was probably jogging a little slower than usual, and my lungs were missing that cold hit which the air when quickly inhaled through the mouth provides. There was even a minor feeling of suffocation from the increased carbon dioxide and the effort of inhaling through the nose. Yet I could keep on going without stopping, and I even jogged up the hill more easily that usual. I was able to complete the whole workout without once opening my mouth. Afterwards the muscles felt less tired than usual. So there you are! I have decided to become like an American Indian and keep my mouth closed.
    The book also tells us to often breath deeply. It has been found that the size of the lungs is decisive for health. The larger the lungs, the more healthy you are and the longer you live. And so I thought to bring out my favorite flute and just enjoy breathing into it, playing through a few of the pieces I used to play before taking up the viol in retirement. But in order not to interrupt the flow of the music it seems impossible to avoid quickly inhaling through the mouth as well as the nose. Oh well... Nothing is perfect. People say that there is an analogy between the flute and bowed stringed instruments. The breath flowing over the far edge of the embouchure hole is like the bow being drawn across the string, and then the lungs and the spaces in the nose and the sinuses are like the resonant body of the viol.
    The second half of the book is titled "Breathing+". All those things about Buddhist monks and their extreme endurance. The techniques of Wim Hof. This involves the opposite of the breathing technique which was described in the first part of the book. Hyperventilating. Subjecting the body into a directed stress. The traditional technique of the peoples of the Himalayas is known as Tummo. There is a YouTube video of a young man who is a teacher of Tummo. I can imagine that he might be an American Indian. An ideal young man. A wonderfully proportioned face and body, in harmony with himself and the world. A model of good breathing.

Galileo, by J.L. Heilbon

     Galileo's father was Vincenzo Galilei, a lute virtuoso and philosopher of music of the renaissance. Of course the lute was the most important instrument in the music of those days. Galileo, the son, often accompanied his father on the lute, and so he became himself a well-known virtuoso. In those days musicians were subjected to the whims of the local prince or duke, or catholic bishop. Money was withheld and only obtained after a certain amount of begging, leaving the musician and his family half destitute. And thus Vincenzo decided that Galileo should become a medical doctor. After all, doctors can always be expected to become rich. But Galileo didn't like medicine. As a way out he slid into mathematics. This is also often a formula for poverty, but Galileo combined this with literature, theology, astrology, of course music and so forth, becoming a renaissance man and a professor of all those things, but especially mathematics, at the University of Pisa at the age of 25.
    Galileo wrote numbers of books on various subjects, and lots of letters to various people, expounding on all his ideas. And then there are the archives of the Vatican which in those days was concerning itself with the Counter-Reformation and the Inquisition, producing further reams of paper in the style of the East German STASI on everybody in Italy, including Galileo. As a result the biographer has much to draw from in his description of the hero. One possibility would be to ignore all of that boring detail and instead tell a good story, bringing in the juicy details which the life of Galileo certainly could provide, given a sufficient amount of literary fantasy. Our author, J.L. Heilbon, decided instead to fill his biography with long verbatim quotes (in translation) from all of those sources, providing us with a book containing much tedious detail and little fantasy. There are pages and pages of schoolbook geometry, giving us diagrams of the circles, lines, triangles and squares which Galileo published, together with lots of sentences in the style of: let ABC be a triangle and CF be a line bisecting AB, etc., etc... I don't know how to reproduce such texts in the HTML language. Perhaps it would be possible to integrate a TeX file into these writings here, but I don't know how to do that. When reading the book I skipped over much of the text, feeling sorry for the students of those days at the University of Pisa who had to master such things. But while skipping through these things I did stop at a certain point and tried to verify what was being quoted.
    Apparently, if I understood what was being said, it seems that Galileo asserted that a pendulum of fixed length always swings with a given fixed period, regardless of the amplitude of the swing. But as everybody knows, that is false! Therefore I wondered where Galileo's mistake lay. Again there were pages of text filled with elementary geometric assertions. And I was struck by the Figure 4.6, reproduced in the book. Now it is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. But in mathematics, one can also say that a picture is a thousand times more likely to produce a mistake. Despite this I would have liked to include the Figure here. However, after spending 4 or 5 minutes looking at the LibreOffice Draw software on my computer, and thus realizing that I would have to spend 4 or 5 hours in order to work out how to make such a drawing, I have instead decided to describe the drawing with words.
    Let ACF be a right angled triangle. Let AC and AF be the sides adjacent to the right angle so that the remaining side, AF is the hypotenuse. Let us assume that the length of AC is some number r, and it is less than the length of CF. Let K be a circle with radius r and center-point C. The hypotenuse AF intersects the circle K in some point D between A and F. Then the text preceding this Figure asserts that "if you remember your Euclid, you know that AD·AF=2AC²". I assume this must be a direct quotation from something of Galileo. At first it almost seems plausible. After all, AD<r and AF>r, so perhaps it is some kind of obscure generalization of the Pythagorean Theorem. Remembering that in this kind of geometry, products are represented by geometrical areas, I started drawing quadrangles, triangles, looking for similar triangles and all that. Did Euclid really prove such a theorem? After wasting a half hour and three or four pieces of paper on this fruitless exercise I decided to do the thing properly and think of simple trigonometry, immediately seeing that the assertion is false.
    But there were some interesting things in the book. For example we have Archimedes and his "eureka" moment. I had always wondered how Archimedes could so precisely measure the volume of water displaced by the crown in the story. As described in the book, and also in a long-winded article of the Wikipedia, Archimedes, and also Galileo, needed only to take a piece of gold of the same weight as the crown as measured on a balance in the laboratory. Then both the crown and the gold piece are submerged in water. If the crown contains lots of silver - which has a lower specific weight than gold - then the crown will have more volume than the gold piece. Therefore it will be more buoyant in water and the balance will tilt toward the gold piece, proving that the crown is not made of pure gold.
    And then we have the story that Galileo stood on top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and dropped two objects of different weights, showing that they descended at the same speed and thus showing that Aristotle was wrong. But this is not at all what the true story was. Aristotle was the required text to be taught at universities. Yet it was generally recognized to be false, and what was worse, it contradicted much of the teachings of the Bible. Thus Saint Thomas Aquinas, back in the 13th century, provided us with an official interpretation of Aristotle, making it more acceptable for Christianity and - more or less - for physics. At the time of Galileo, lots of people were dropping all sorts of weights from buildings and interpreting the way they were falling in one way or another. This was the Great Problem of Motion. For example it was asserted that if we have a piece of wood and a piece of iron of the same weight, then the wood will fall more quickly than the iron. The experiment is difficult to perform. Perhaps the wood slips out of the hand faster than the iron, or not. The reason given for the assertion that wood falls more quickly is that wood contains more air than iron (remembering that everything is composed of the four elements: air, water, earth and fire). And compressed air in the wood is heavier than normal air, so it falls faster... or something. Maybe it was also thought that iron contains more fire which tends to rise, thus slowing the rate of descent (although that possible argument was not quoted in the text). All of this produced heated arguments and counter arguments. Lots of bad feelings. Galileo was always quick to take offense. And then there were all sorts of similar arguments about other natural phenomena. I began to skip lightly through through the book, gliding over this nonsense. Some things were reasonable, others, such as Galileo's theory of tides, not so.
    Of course Galileo was a big fan of the Copernican world view. Copernicus lived a hundred years before Galileo, so it was not as if this was a startling new idea. In fact the official view of the Roman Catholic Church was that all of these theories about astronomy had nothing really to do with the church. After all, Aristotle had asserted that the heavenly objects are perfect spheres and the fixed stars are fixed on a rigid metal sphere, and all that, which is obviously nonsense. It was all interpreted away by Saint Thomas as being of no significance for theology, and therefore the church had no particular position on the question. Copernicus' book was widely circulated and debated throughout Italy for a century before Galileo came along.
    The problem was that Galileo had become famous by developing the telescope which had been first constructed in Holland, and he looked through it at night. He saw that the moon had mountains; he discovered four small moons of Jupiter; he discovered, or at least described, sunspots. All of these things were considered to be sensational.
    Galileo was a very devoted catholic and he was good friends with the Pope Paul V who, unfortunately, died in 1621. The successor, Gregory XV didn't last long, and then came Urban VIII in 1623. A very touchy person. Quick to anger, as was the now famous Galileo himself. Urban developed a hatred for Galileo for some obscure reason. And unlike these days where those princes of religion with their outlandish costumes and elaborate ceremonies are not taken seriously, back in the days of the Inquisition the popes could have people burned at the stake at the drop of a hat, or an imagined affront. Thus the story that after signing his confession, Galileo was supposed to have murmured "and yet it moves", is certainly not true. Tycho Brahe's model with the Earth at the center of the Universe, the Sun and the Moon orbiting the Earth, and everything else orbiting the Sun, is of course completely equivalent to Copernicus' model through a trivial change of frame of reference. And Urban VIII declared Brahe's model to be acceptable, so the controversy was about nothing. The whole business resulted in a retreat from science in Italy for at least a hundred years, during which time progress was made in the northerly lands of Europe which had rejected the Catholic Church and all of its abuses.

The Lost City of Z, by David Grann

     This book caught my eye owing to its title. "Z" is the symbol of the Russian war in Ukraine. But it has nothing at all to do with that mess. Instead it is concerned with Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, the British explorer, and his quest for the lost land of El Dorado which he decided to think about as the "Lost City of Z" for some reason. In 1925 he disappeared into the Amazon jungle together with his son and his son's friend, never to be seen again.
    Looking at the Wikipedia page of the author, we see a flabby middle-aged man, the antithesis of the intrepid explorer. Yet he traveled to Brazil, to Dead Horse Camp and beyond, the last known position of Fawcett, in order to research this book. For David Grann the excursion was infinitely more comfortable than it had been for Fawcett and his companions. The jungle has been done away with, replaced with vast open fields of soybeans. He tells us that his car and driver had to negotiate the mud and rut holes in the roads leading to Dead Horse Camp. And then there was the problem of getting to the Indian village which was rumored to be the place where Fawcett was killed all those years ago. This was more complicated. It was in a part of the jungle which still existed and was a protected area. The Indian tribes were left alone and outsiders were only allowed in under very special circumstances. David Grann was able to obtain a guide who was familiar with the local people and who acted as translator. They traveled for hours along the Upper Xingu river in a boat with outboard motor, finally stopping to walk a few hundred meters inland to the village of the Kalapalos Indians.
    The local chief told him that Fawcett and his two companions were not killed by their tribe, but rather by the neighbors who were much more brutal. Be that as it may, the author met up with Michael Heckenberger, an anthropologist of the University of Florida who studies the Kalapalos people and has himself become a member of the tribe. He has identified vast structures, mounds in the earth, indicative of large interconnected settlements: the Kuhikugu archeological site. This might have been the civilization glimpsed by early Spanish explorers, the legendary El Dorado. Fawcett's "Z". The inhabitants must have been wiped out by the diseases brought by the Europeans, degenerating into small, brutal tribes, killing all intruders, in particular the Spanish. Since there is a lack of stones in the Amazon, their cities were made of wood and earthworks. The former disappearing into the jungle growth and the later gradually subsiding. All of this is the subject of Heckenberger's research.
    But the main part of the book is a biography of Percy Fawcett and his world of the Amazon in the early 1900s. A man of extreme physical fitness and determination. Unlike today, an expedition was totally on its own. Dark clouds of mosquitoes biting everything; worms which penetrated under the skin, growing there, spreading throughout the body; poisonous snakes; brutal cannibalistic Indians; hunger and thirst. It was a paradox that the jungle was full of dangerous life, but almost none of it was suitable for eating - at least for the explorers who were not familiar with the ways of the Indians. Most of the people who tried to explore the Amazon never returned.
    We are left with the vision of a vast, forgotten civilization. The City of Z.

The Thirteenth Tale, by Diana Setterfield

     This is a retelling, or paraphrasing, of Jane Eyre, that classical 19th century romance for lonely girls, brought into a more or less modern setting. We have the orphaned heroine. The decrepit, ancient English mansion consumed by fire, consuming an insane female. The disfigurement of the beloved. In the original, Mr. Rochester is blinded but also freed of poor old Bertha. (I much preferred Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea, showing how the sensitive Antoinette is converted by the evil Mr. Rochester into the tragic figure of Bertha.) Diana Setterfield's Adeline is evil from birth, leaving her complacent twin sister Emmeline to be disfigured by fire, and to be loved by the destitute half sister, Vida Winter, the version of Jane Eyre for the present story.
    These fires, killings of unwanted rivals, is long in the past. Vida Winter is now an old woman in her 80s, in the process of dying. She is England's greatest living novelist, having written a book a year, each volume selling millions, being translated into countless foreign languages and being sold in their millions as well. She must be as rich as J.K. Rowling, or even very much richer. She lives in a huge house somewhere in the English countryside, surrounded by huge gardens, servants. The not-quite-twin, the disfigured, mentally disturbed Emmeline, lives in a secret wing of the house, lovingly attended to by the housekeeper.
    But all of this is just a framework for telling us the real story which is about the mystical relationship of twins with one another. The book starts off by telling us about Margaret Lea, living in an antiquarian bookshop in Cambridge (if I remember rightly) with her father, reading sought-after and rare editions of Jane Eyre and also some of the novels of Wilkie Collins, and so on. We are told that she was the dominant half of a Siamese twin; at birth the other half was cut away, leaving Margaret alive but with the feeling of guilt, loneliness, longing for her murdered other half. She goes on and on about this. Where is her other half? Is she waiting in the other world, beyond death? How is life possible alone? Everything is depression. Her mother has fallen into a deep, lasting depression, rejecting Margaret, mooning after the lost other half. Only her father tries to be a bit sensible. And then when the story gets going it is also all about the twins Adeline and Emmeline. How they long for each other and how they suffer from separation. I began to wonder what it is that the author has about twins. Does she have a twin obsession? Almost all the rest of us do not have a twin, and even most twins are not identical twins. It is normal not to be a twin.
    Margaret receives a letter from Vida Winter, asking her to write her biography. And so the story begins, immersing us into the world of both Jane Eyre and of twins, further than we had really wanted to go.

The Easy Life in Kamusari, by Shion Miura

     A Japanese novel about forestry. The narrator, Yuki, has just finished school in the big city of Yokohama, not doing well. And so he is suddenly confronted with the fact that his parents and school teachers have gotten him a job working in the mountain forests at an obscure place called Kamusari, without asking him. He goes there, is placed under the tutelage of Yoki, lives in Yoki's house together with his wife Miho, and gets to know all the other people in the village as well. Gradually he learns all about how forestry is done in Japan. He becomes strong and learns to love life in the forest, becoming accepted as a member of the village. He falls in love with the school teacher, Nao, who, unfortunately, at least at first, rejects him. Nao is secretly in love with Seiichi, the owner of all the forestry land, but who also goes out every day to work in the forest along with everybody else. Seiichi is married and is a very honorable person so that Nao's secret love is in vain. Towards the end, Nao does consent to go for the occasional walk with Yuki, so there is hope. The book is written in a simple, almost juvenile style, as if it is a book for children. This may be the style of the translator; perhaps it does not reflect the style of the original.
    We learn lots about how forestry is done in Japan. The workers continually walk around the mountain, cutting down "weeds" with scythes, climbing up the trees with ropes to cut off lower branches in order to have the trees growing straight with few knots in the wood. All of this labor must make the final lumber which is the product of the whole business extremely expensive. We are told that wood which is imported into Japan is much cheaper, but this domestic wood is considered to be of a more pure quality. Of course the whole thing is not a "forest", rather it is a tree plantation, or farm. There is a sacred mountain where nature is left to itself. Yuki is overwhelmed by all the life and growth in this real forest. At the end of the book the men of the village march up to near the top of the sacred mountain to chop down a gigantic, thousand year old tree. Then they climb on top of it and slide down the mountain, risking their lives in a kind of wild toboggan ride. I wonder how the huge log with a diameter of 3 or 4 meters is supposed to be prevented from rolling over, crushing everybody. Such destruction serves to honor the god of the mountain.
    In Australia, south of Eden on Twofold Bay, there is a huge logging operation. There is certainly no "weeding" or any of that. The native bush - it's not called forest - is completely cleared away with bulldozers in some given plot of a few hectares, and the whole thing is shredded into wood chips to be sent to Japan to make paper. Then the land is left to regenerate by itself for a sufficient amount of time, "weeds" and all. Maybe these days the wood chips are just burned. Here in Germany burning wood chips for heating houses is applauded by the voters of the Green Party, despite the fact that it causes increased levels of pollution.
    Germans make much of their forests, or "Wälder". When I first arrived in the Spring of 1975 I was astonished at the intense green of the forests. And yet everywhere it was said that the forests were dying. "Waldsterben". They have been continuously dying between then and now. Fifty years ago they were dying due to acid rain, or smog, global cooling, or something. Now they are dying due to climate change. People are continuously concerned about the death of the forests. And yet for some reason there is now more forest here than there was 50 years ago. Some real forests are left alone and are full of thick vegetation. In fact, as I understand it, in places where people are afraid to go - for example in those countries of the Balkans where they are continuously cutting each others throats, or around Chernobyl - the forests are absolutely thriving. The problem in Germany is that most of the trees are in privately owned tree plantations. And it was thought that planting fir trees would give the most profit. Fir trees are not really suited to this climate. The natural vegetation is oak and beech and lots of other things. Hard wood. But that grows more slowly with lots of curved branches. Not so good for building slanted roofs or wooden partitions. And so the fir trees, planted in rows of mono-culture, are weak, tending to sickness. Given a nice warm summer then the owners of the tree plantations complain. Their trees are attacked by beetles; they fall down together in their rows and columns if a storm wind blows. People panic. They spray the tree plantations with pesticides from helicopters. They vote for the Greens. And they cannot see the healthy natural forests which are thriving next to all those unnatural tree plantations.

Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov): Portrait of a Marriage, by Stacy Schiff

     I found this book in a list of the 20 best biographies. It is as much concerned with the husband, the author, as with Véra. Both were born at the turn of the 19th to the 20th centuries in the old Saint Petersburg into very wealthy families, living just a block or two from one another but first meeting in the 1920s in exile in Berlin. Vladimir's ancient and aristocratic family occupied a huge city mansion, and in fact when an uncle died, Vladimir, at the age of 16, was bequeathed a magnificent country estate. But all of this was lost to communism, leaving the family in exile with practically nothing. As a young man Vladimir was handsome, athletic. A championship tennis player. Even as a teenager he published books of his poetry. The family first went to England where Vladimir entered Cambridge at Trinity College and studied zoology and languages while the others moved to France. Later Vladimir moved to the large emigrant Russian colony in Berlin where he existed writing books of Russian poetry and giving tennis lessons to the other Russians in the city. He fell in love with one beautiful young Russian aristocratic woman after the other, becoming engaged, but ultimately rejected as the penniless poet with no future by those families who had had the foresight to take out enough money in time. He was proud of the fact that although he was fluent in both English and French, he was unable, and refused to learn, German, despite the fact that he lived in Berlin for perhaps 10 years until the Nazis came to power.
    Véra's family was Jewish; also very wealthy. And as with the Nabokovs, almost all was lost in the emigration. Véra was fluent in various languages, including German, and so she was working as a translator in Berlin. When they first met Vladimir was just recovering from the rejection of his latest marriage engagement. In his impulsive, poetic way, he declared himself to be totally in love with Véra. She was in love with him. They were together in tiny, uncomfortable apartments. The other Russian aristocrats thought it a minor scandal that he was together with a Jewish woman, but life had been overturned anyway, and they married with little ceremony.  Véra devoted herself to Vladimir. He was a genius. The greatest Russian writer of the century, and indeed this view was shared by others in the Berlin colony. Véra continued to earn barely enough with translations, but she also became Vladimir's secretary, typing drafts of his manuscripts. And so life went on.
    As it became clear that life in Berlin would be impossible, Vladimir traveled to Paris and London, trying to find publishers for his writings, giving talks. After 10 years of marriage to Véra, separated on one of these trips, he fell completely in love with Irina Guadanini, another young Russian aristocratic woman... Drama. Tragedy. He eventually returned to Véra, rejecting his new love with Irina, and she became an embittered woman, withdrawing into herself, growing old and isolated. We have the feeling that Vladimir simply remained with Véra for the convenience of her devotion, her typing and her dealing with all the practical aspects of life. For the rest of his life Vladimir pretended that he was unable to deal with anything practical. He could not drive a car; he could not use the telephone; he could not write letters. All of these things were for Véra. And she devoted herself to them and to him so that he found that he also loved her devotedly. They became inseparable.
    At the last minute they escaped from Paris to the United States where he was able to obtain a temporary position at Wellesley College, lecturing to the adoring young female students about literature. He also gave occasional talks at Harvard and eventually obtained a permanent position at Cornell University. Much of the book is devoted to this phase of their lives.
    To be quite frank, I often wonder why there are faculties of literature at most universities. I enjoy reading these things for various reasons which I've often mentioned here. It is pleasant to read stories, usually more so than watching a movie or even talking to others, listening to their stories. But when did the idea arise that literature should be more than a pleasant diversion and instead become a serious academic field of study? What is the point of such studies? Certainly before the 19th century, novels were considered to be nothing more than trivial ways to pass the time. Something to chat about in idle moments.
    It seems that the Nabokovs wrote out in detail, perhaps word for word, the lectures he spoke at Cornell. And then Véra came to each of his lectures, often sitting in front of the students, being introduced as his "assistant". She filled in details, erased the blackboard, helped him while he pretended to be helpless. Apparently it was a popular performance and his lectures were very well attended. Students were astonished to learn that Véra was his wife. And I find the whole thing difficult to imagine. Who ever heard of someones wife - or husband as the case may be - intimately taking part in ones lectures like that? The idea seems impossible, bizarre. And then at home Véra spent sleepless days and nights, typing up these lectures and the other writings of Vladimir, as well as cooking for him, looking after their son, Dimitri, keeping the house clean and tidy, driving Vladimir to the faculty and back. Always trying to stay in the background; only Vladimir was important. Gradually some began to suspect that Véra had also taken over some of Vladimir's writing, an idea she always vehemently disputed. During the holidays Véra drove the family out West to the wide expanses of America, and Vladimir pottered about with his hobby: collecting butterflies. Véra was staunchly anti-communist. She applauded Joseph McCarthy and was indignant about the fact that he had fallen from grace. She was proud and vocal about her Jewish ancestry, while Vladimir floated above such things.
    Up to this point Nabokov was just one of the many obscure immigrant intellectuals filling posts at American universities. All of this changed with Lolita, propelling Vladimir into instant celebrity, if not notoriety. He continued to write. His Pnin, which I enjoyed so much, was written after Lolita. The income from Cornell was no longer needed. Gradually they sought a place to settle in Europe, ending up in the Montreux Palace Hotel in 1961 and living there on a permanent basis until his death in 1977. Véra continued typing for him, driving him about as his chauffeur, dealing with all the disputes with publishers, taxation problems (they had taken out American citizenship, thus creating permanent tax difficulties for themselves), all of the details of the translations of Nabokov's various novels into countless other languages, and so on... while Vladimir remained in his role as the helpless genius. After Vladimir's death, Véra stayed in the Palace Hotel another 14 years until she also passed away.
    I must read a few more of Nabokov's books.

Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov

     Clicking in to Amazon to download this book, nothing happened. I wondered what the problem was. But then I noticed a text telling me that I had already "bought" this book from them. Indeed, some years ago, perhaps just after I had read Pnin, I must have started reading this one, but I see that I soon gave up. This time, having read all about the lives of Vladimir and Véra, I was determined to push on to the end.
    It starts off with a 999 line poem. I was going to write that it is a nonsense poem written as a joke, but perhaps the professors of literature in all the universities of the world would admonish us to take it seriously. The story is that the poem was written by John Shade, a professor of literature at an American university. In fact the scene seems to be that of Cornell University. This book was written by Nabokov after he had become rich and famous with his Lolita. He was freed of the constraints of academic life and could make fun of his former colleagues.
    After wading through these 999 lines we then have a much longer prose exposition which is that of Charles Kinbote, a neighbor of Shade in this imaginary Cornell and a colleague of his in its Faculty of Literature. Shade has died after completing the poem and Kinbote is editing it for publication, or whatever. He rambles on and on. Obscure nonsense for page after page about an imaginary country named Zembla which has some of the attributes of Russia, but many attributes not of Russia. How he was a close friend of Shade, although Shade despised him. How he is secretly so much more wonderful than the others in the Faculty. And so on. I made it further into the book than was the case at my last attempt, but well before the end I could not avoid the question of why I was wasting so much time on such nonsense. And thus I stopped. But looking at the number of stars people give the book at, I see that I am nearly alone in this. And therefore, once again, I realize that I am living in a completely different world from that which all of you other people seem to occupy.
    In my world I interpret this book as being the product of an excess of egotistical exuberance on the part of the author in that phase of his life. In the previous book we saw that whenever Vladimir or Véra were asked about their favorite authors or books, they could honestly only think of Vladimir. All other authors were dreadful, or at least inferior. Vladimir was everything.
    Well, it is true that he was perhaps the best in his style: the witty satire. But there are many other styles in literature. For example the Nabokovs made fun of Jane Austen as being a dreadful writer of rubbish. But in her style surely any sensible person would say she was wonderful. I enjoyed reading her books. This present book, Pale Fire, in the style of Nabokov, is for me rubbish.
    Pale Fire was mentioned often in the previous biography of the Nabokovs, but also the classic Russian novel A Hero of our Time was often mentioned. The Nabokovs must have had a good opinion of the author, so I'll read that next to see what it's all about.

A Hero of our Time, by Mikhail Lermentov

     This was first published in Russian in 1840. There is a translation by Vladimir, together with his son Dimitri Nabokov; it may well be better than the one I have read, but this one was freely downloadable from We can read about the author here. Lermentov was a member of the Russian aristocracy, as was the Hero of his book, Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin. They both became officers in the Russian army after a difficult childhood. The author, Lermentov, served in the Caucasian mountains, having been exiled there after his taking part in a duel - which was of course illegal. And this book is set in the Caucasus. Lermentov was killed in another duel which he had provoked by insulting a former friend for attiring himself in native costume. Thus the author's life and death follows the plot of his novel, with the twist that in the novel, Pechorin coldly shoots his opponent after complicated disputes on the conduct of the duel, disappearing into the mists of the mountains.
    Beautiful, young, wealthy, aristocratic women throw themselves at Pechorin, princesses, countesses, provoking the envy of the other officers and husbands. He treats them all with cold disdain. And the author was similarly the object of desire of young, wealthy and aristocratic women. The novel was criticized at the time of publication for its senseless lack of morality, but this was part of the Byronic tradition of the romantic age.
    We are among the mountains in the south of Russia with their countless, violent tribal people. There are spa resorts filled with visitors from Saint Petersberg and Moscow, taking the waters, reminding us of the ancient traditions of Russian society.

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, by Vladimir Nabokov

     The narrator is the half brother of the writer Sebastian Knight. Despite his name, Knight was a Russian, born to an aristocratic family at the turn of the 19th to the 20th centuries. In exile he studies literature at Cambridge (was it Trinity College?). The half brother, known only as "V" - he doesn't want to tell us his name or any other personal details - lives in France, having little contact with Sebastian. Just a letter every year or two, although Sebastian, who has become a successful novelist, regularly sends him money. It is now 1938 or 39; Sebastian has died and V has decided to write his biography. Nabokov wrote the book during that time, before he had moved to America. It is the first book he wrote in English. It was published in America in 1941.
    We learn about the life of Sebastian Knight. He lived together with Clare Bishop, a woman faithfully devoted to him, typing his manuscripts, looking after him. I'm not sure if it was said that Clare was also Russian. Certainly neither her name nor that of Sebastian sounds Russian. But as with Lenin and Stalin, and even Pushkin, it seems that Russians are fond of substituting simple pseudonyms for their more complex, many syllabled real Russian names. During a separation from Clare, Sebastian meets and falls in love with a mysterious woman. While looking through Sebastian's old papers, V can find nothing to tell him who this woman was, and so he sets off on a quest to find her. Eventually he does find Nina Leclef, living in Paris. It turns out that she is also Russian, despite her name and her perfect French. She is a deceptive, manipulative woman.
    Having just before read the biography of Vladimir and Véra Nabokov, all of this sounds extremely familiar. Are we completely misplaced if we think of the following obvious associations?: Vladimir = Sebastian; Véra = Clare;  Irina Guadanini = Nina. Perhaps even adding Sergey (Valdimir's brother) = V.
    The author, Vladimir Nabokov seems to be describing his life for us: his struggles with the English language; his love for, or at least the convenience of his life with his wife Véra; his wild infatuation for Irina Guadanini. I wonder what Véra thought when typing up all this stuff. Unlike this imaginary story, the real life Vladimir Nabokov stayed with Véra and lived on for many years, writing his Lolita and all the rest.
    After finding Nina, V is filled with the guilt which followed Sebastian's death. He dreams about Sebastian and death. He was in Marseilles in the south of France, in the middle of an intense patch of work for the firm where he was employed when he received a telegram, telling him that Sebastian was in a hospital near Paris, near death. V hurries to the station; many hours on a crowded, filthy train. A taxi drive in the snowbound, icy night. Only to find that Sebastian had died the day before. V is obsessed with the thought of death. He has missed it. If only he had been with Sebastian at the moment of his death. Perhaps Sebastian would have been able to tell him what death is. To unlock this profound mystery.
    Is the presence of death, being near a dying person, the key to unlocking the mystery? If so, then we would expect hospital doctors to be enlightened. But my observation (for what little it is and what little it is worth) is that medical doctors tend to be remarkably unenlightened. What is the point of being obsessed with death? A diversion from the more important things of life.

The Candid Life of Meena Dave, by Namrata Patel

     Meena Dave is a woman of Indian descent, early 30s, a photographer, traveling about the world, her photographs published in newspapers, magazines. She is an orphan who had been lovingly brought up by a white American couple who tragically died when their house blew up in a gas explosion when Meena was 16, after which she was put in an orphanage for a few years. She learns that she has been granted a legacy in the will of somebody she doesn't know, thinking it must be something trivial. It turns out to be an apartment in an extremely luxurious house in the historical inner city of Boston, worth almost three million dollars. Her first thought is to sell it and continue with her life of continuous travel, free of commitments, attachments. She is told what the house is. It is called the Engineer House. It was started a hundred years ago with a group of Indian students who were studying at MIT, becoming a kind of fraternity. Most of the students returned to India to help build the country after independence. But a few stayed on, having families, agreeing on specific legal conditions regarding the ownership of the house and the 5 or 6 apartments it contained. Apartments could not be sold to outsiders. The ownership of an apartment passed on to the eldest child of an occupant when that eldest child reached the age of 25. But what had Meena to do with that?
    She learns that the previous owner of the apartment was a woman who had died childless. All of the other people in the house are of pure Indian descent. They seem to have lots of money. Everything is clean, perfect. They do everything together, keeping their Indian traditions, cooking Indian food. While the front door is kept locked, the doors to the apartments remain unlocked and the people move freely between the apartments, often not bothering to knock. It is a perfect little Indian village, not spoiled by all the dirt, squalor, bickering, of a real Indian village in India.
    Meena decides to keep the apartment and try living in it. Across the corridor is a wonderful, handsome, young man who would be the perfect partner for Meena. There are three older women in their 50s who gradually initiate Meena into all the wonderful things of Indian culture. It is a nice story. And there is the mystery of who Meena is; who were her biological parents, why was she given away as a baby into adoption? What has it to do with the Engineers House? At the end all is revealed and everybody lives happily ever after.

    But there are a number of problems with this story. To begin with, in the real world Meena would have had to pay a million or more in inheritance tax; impossible, given her situation. Apart from that, my skeptical mind dwelled on a few further thoughts. In Australia, which is also a country of immigrants, great emphasis was put on integrating new immigrants into the life of Australia. They were discouraged from isolating themselves into closed ghettos. Indeed, when I first moved to Germany, not thinking that I was immigrating; I was rather taking up a kind of post doctoral post for a year or two - which became a lifetime, I certainly didn't try to find Australians or Americans rather than Germans or other nationalities to be friends with. After all, if people want to immigrate to another country then they should accept what they doing; if they want to wallow in thoughts of the old country then they should get out, return to that old country and get on with life.
    But of course the great tragedy of all the displaced people who are now settling in Europe, fleeing from the countless wars of the United States, is that they can no longer return. Why aren't these displaced people sent to the United States which is the source of their plight, for example to the historic center of Boston, where they could live in closed houses and streets, forming their own ghettos.

Forbidden Notebook, by Alba de Céspedes

     This is a novel written as a diary. It was first published in 1950 in Italy in serial form in subsequent issues of a magazine, corresponding to the six months of the diary, as if it were being written by the protagonist, describing her real life from day to day. She is Valeria Cossati, living in Rome. She is 43 years old and has two children: Mirella, 20, is the daughter and Riccardo, 22, is the son. Both are studying law at university. Her husband, Michele, is somewhat older than Valeria. He works in a bank but doesn't earn enough to support the family, and so Valeria also has a job in an office. She also does all the cooking at home, the cleaning, looking after everything. A generation ago her family belonged to the aristocracy, living in a villa near Venice, but they lost everything due to mismanagement and the upheavals of the world wars. Michele does not come from an aristocratic family; in his way he does love Valeria as does she him.
    The first days of the diary tell us how she bought the notebook on a whim while out buying cigarettes for Michele. It is a secret. She won't tell anyone in the family about it. After all, whenever she tries to say anything serious, all the others laugh at her, not only the children calling her Mama, but Michele, her husband, also calls her Mama. How could Mama have a serious opinion about anything? The idea is absurd. And so she desperately thinks about different hiding places for her notebook. Of course Mirella has a diary which is in a locked drawer next to her bed, but that is understandable; Mirella is a serious law student.
    Valeria tells us about her life, her worries. The apartment is too small. There are always problems with money. Mirella needs new clothes but there is only enough for a few things. Riccardo also needs more money than the small allowance he receives.
    Mirella stays out late at night, alone with an older man of 35 who, she discovers, is already married. A scandal. Valeria stays up waiting for Mirella to return and is then angry, lecturing her about morality. A woman should marry and devote herself to the family, the children. But Mirella says that she does not want a life like that of Valeria. She is ambitious. She will leave home as soon as she becomes 21. She already has a job in a law firm and plans to move to another city, to become a successful, well-known lawyer. Valeria is constantly worrying about Mirella. What has she done wrong? Is Mirella living in sin? But her husband Michele often has private, understanding personal conversations with his daughter, which they stop when Valeria, with all her worries, comes into the room.
    Riccardo is a Mamma's child. She loves him. His law exams are coming up, but we know that he will fail them. He has been promised a job in Argentina, and he dreams of his future. And Valeria thinks with horror of the emptiness if the wonderful Riccardo were to be so far away. He has a young girlfriend, Marina, perhaps only 16 or 17. A simpleminded thing, a school dropout, vacant eyes. Valeria can't stand her. But towards the end of the notebook she is confronted with the pregnancy of Riccardo's girlfriend. They must immediately marry. Riccardo, who had always scoffed at his father and his pitiful job at the bank accepts an even more lowly position there. One idea is that Riccardo and Marina simply go alone to Argentina, leaving Valeria to take care of the baby. She thinks the idea might be wonderful, having a new baby, a grandson of Riccardo, a room of her own in Riccardo's then vacant bedroom. But Mirella pours cold water on this vision with the obvious observation that Riccardo will certainly fail his exams, nullifying the job offer in Argentina, so that all of them will be left living on top of one another in the tiny apartment with the baby and the hated Marina.
    And then it turns out that Valeria's boss at the office, the owner of the firm, is in love with her, and she with him. What a mess! She prays in the church. She imagines that this notebook is the source of her downfall. It is a sin, a work of the devil. And it is the end of the book. What had started out as a fun adventure of hiding the notebook from the family turns into a claustrophobic drama. Only Mirella is free. A dramatic, absorbing book to read.

Parisian Days, by Banine

     Banine's full name was Umm-El-Banine-Assadoulaeff, or - according to the foreword to the book - Ummulbanu Asadullayeva.  She was born in 1905 and her childhood was in Azerbaijan's Baku, before the Russian Revolution. The family was rich with all the oil of the Caspian Sea. They were not an ancient Russian family. Instead they were more like the billionaire oligarchs which all seemed to have come out of the woodwork in Eastern Europe and Russia after communism collapsed in 1990. As a child Banine was in love with a gardener on the family estate, but at 15 she was forced to marry someone else in the oligarch class who she hated. Her family escaped the Russian civil war, settling in Paris. She and her husband made it to Turkey, and then she traveled on alone to Paris in 1923, at the age of 18, separating herself from him forever. Only many years later was she able to obtain a divorce in a French court.
    The family had not had the forethought, or luck, to have transferred their riches into a Swiss bank account, and so they arrived with just what they had been able to carry with them. The jewels and other valuables kept them going for a year or two in gradually decreasing luxury, branching off into more bohemian lifestyles. Banine was able to find a job as a model at a well-known Parisian fashion house, displaying the collection for rich customers and the rest of the clientele which has undoubtedly hardly changed in the hundred years between then and now. Her photo in the Wikipedia shows a woman in the style of the 1920s; if not a beauty at least she seems more pleasant than all of those lifeless modern-day fashion models.
    Suddenly a cousin appears, full of life, throwing money away in an extravagant fashion. She is Gulnar, and Banine attaches herself to the cousin. The rest of the story is that of Gulnar's affairs, only occasionally interrupted by Banine's own modest life. It seems that Gulnar was the mistress of Otto, a German who was unfortunately married but passionately in love with Gulnar and who was seeking a divorce to free himself for Gulnar. But his business involved him traveling about for months at a time, even into Russia. Later in the story he seems to have disappeared into a communist prison, never to be seen again. For Gulnar it is a relief, a cause for celebration when Otto leaves, receiving vast amounts of his money along with his farewell tears. Gulnar flirts with various aristocratic French gentlemen. They are awkward, old men, but rich and titled, things that Gulnar covets. Banine is given an old French doctor who has an eye clinic in Orleans. He is rich, but without a title (apart from his medical qualifications - which hardly count in the world of fashion). She visits him on weekends, telling us that she likes having sex with him, but apart from that she finds him to be a stupid, pathetic, revolting creature.
    At the end of the book we are told that Gulnar meets a young man who is the exact image of JFK (but this is back in the 1930s). He is fabulously rich, the son of a Texas oil millionaire. She marries him and disappears into Texas. We are not told how long that marriage lasted. I find it difficult to imagine the extravagant, fashionable Gulnar exchanging Paris for Dallas, or perhaps even Paris, Texas. And in the real Paris, Banine's ophthalmologist finally tells her that he has had enough of it. We vaguely learn that she lived on in the life of Paris, marrying and divorcing. The book was enjoyable to read, written in a lively style, this translation perhaps reflecting that of the French original.

A Waiter in Paris, by Edward Chisholm

     Another book about Paris. Again not a novel; a true story. The author is an Englishman who tells us that he studied Oriental and African Studies in London. What does one do with such a qualification? Go to the Orient and Africa? Or perhaps work in a bank in the City of London, dealing with Orientals and Africans. We are told that he spent countless post-graduation hours applying for jobs with no response. His French girlfriend told him that she wanted to return to Paris, and so he decided to go along with her, see what his prospects there might be. There followed further weeks of sending out job applications into the vacuous internet, camped in their tiny apartment. But at least he did enjoy spending his days walking about in Paris, finding it to be the most wonderful place on Earth, reading his copy of George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London. After a couple of months of this he still had no job. The girlfriend was offered something in a museum back in London. She left and he stayed, saying that he wanted to prove to himself that he could exist on his own.
    And so eventually he walked into a famous, luxury restaurant (he tells us that it is "Le Bistrot de la Seine", but the internet finds no such restaurant - clearly he has changed the name to avoid being sued), saying that he is an experienced waiter and that he would like a job. He soon finds out that everything is appearance. The dining room is elegant, stylish. Only well-dressed, chic people are welcome. And the famous eat here: politicians, television "news" presenters, movie actors, along with tourists wanting to be a part of fashionable Paris. It is only after finishing the book and writing this piece that I have found a photo of the author on his internet site. He is handsome, elegant. Clearly the manager of the restaurant hired him for his good looks, the beautiful Englishman, despite his obvious lack of experience and inability to speak the language. His role would be to charm the tourists with his educated English. The restaurant also maintained a collection of "hostesses": young women with long legs in short skirts, walking about, leading diners to their tables, doing nothing in particular, just to be looked at and admired.
    He was assigned the role of a "runner". That is to say he didn't take orders. Rather he supported the other waiters, bringing the plates, drinks and everything from out of the door marked "private" into the dining room on a silver platter, stacked high, balanced overhead on the left hand, to the tables, then gathering the used things to be brought back on the platter. His description of his first day was terrible. He had bought a cheap waiter's suit and black shoes which didn't fit well with the last of his money, and he was kept going from 6 in the morning till late at night without a pause. Yet he was determined to see it through, not to have another failure in his life. When reading this I remembered the sinking feeling I had when reading Down and Out in Paris and London 50 years ago. In a book we imagine ourselves being in the situation of the protagonist. What if life were to lead me into such a mess? At least now, at 75 with a comfortable pension, such thoughts are behind me.
    We are told about what happens beyond the "private" door. It is the "pass", where food comes up from the kitchens and is assembled together for the tables. The waiters in the dining room are all Europeans, with one or two elegant North Africans. Behind the door everything is non-European. At the pass are three Tamils - Tamil Tigers. There is chaos, shouting, infighting between the waiters, grovelling for tips. Down in the basement is the preparatory kitchen. Only black Africans are there, working for a pittance, illegal immigrants, hacking away at vegetables, the wet floor covered with peelings, dirt, even rats. Loud music, shouting, chaos. The products of all this are sent up in a service elevator. The main kitchen is somewhere above and it is strictly prohibited for any waiter to go up to the main kitchen. The author imagines the main kitchen being filled with exquisite chefs of the haute cuisine: a Paul Boucuse with a high, white chef's hat, a "toque blanche". What an awakening he receives after a few months in the restaurant when a lonely, middle aged American tourist orders a steak and finds it to be red inside. She asks the author to return it to the kitchen to be further cooked. The Tamils refuse to send it up. The other waiters ignore him. And so he climbs the forbidden stairs to the secret inner sanctum of the restaurant. Opening the door, he is shocked to find that it is a small, hot, loud room. The cook is a Corsican; a huge, sweaty man brandishing a huge cleaver, shouting at the others who are all black Africans. There are flames everywhere. The walls and everything else are covered with thick layers of old grease. Screaming at the author to get out, the Corsican threatens him with his knife. When he learns why he has come, his anger knows no bounds. He grabs the throat of the author with his free hand, choking him, pressing him against the greasy wall, takes the piece of meat and almost throws it on the floor, then throws it to one of the Africans working at one of the pits of fire and shouts at him to cremate it. The author escapes, almost suffocated, returning to the quiet, elegant dining room where the woman inspects the meat and decides that she can now eat it. Afterward, one of the hostesses tells the author that the back of his jacket has become greasy and dirty.
    Everybody behind the door knows that the food is rubbish. The waiters use all sorts of dirty French words to describe it. None of them, if they had the money, would eat in a restaurant like this. The food must cost 50 or 100 euros or more for a dinner. They all know that small, family restaurants are infinitely better, where a dinner costs no more than 10 or 15 euros.
    The author, Edward Chisholm, simply loves the city of Paris. I find this difficult to understand. He is prepared to put up with anything in order to stay there. He rents a tiny room in the roof of a house which costs him almost all of his earnings from the restaurant. His body is covered with red spots from the bites of bedbugs. He is worked to such a state of hunger and exhaustion that he faints, falling and breaking the bones in his hand, hitting his head on concrete into a coma. But Paris is nothing like the romantic nonsense of Hollywood movies. The air is polluted with toxic fumes; the tap water tastes and smells strongly of chlorine - who knows what sorts of dead germs are floating around in it; the streets are filled with loud, aggressively driven cars, trucks, and especially scooters making horribly loud, sudden, wasp-like screams; most of Paris consists of dangerous high-rise slums, the various races and ethnicities are living in a self-imposed apartheid, free of the police who are afraid to enter these areas.
    But from his internet page we are told that he is now living in Lausanne in Switzerland. A much, much more pleasant place! He is making a living as a writer, and I wish him well. His life has become more interesting and fascinating to read about than the lives of the two young bankers of the City of London who happened to sit at a table on the terrace of the restaurant where he was serving drinks, celebrating their bloated bonuses. He was horrified to recognize them as former fellow students of the School of Oriental and African Studies. How embarrassing that he had to serve them their drinks, expecting them to toss a few coins onto the table as a tip. At least he could move on in life. We feel sorry for the other waiters, his friends in the restaurant, who could only look forward to more of the same.

The Mayflower Pilgrims, by Derek Wilson

     I was expecting this to be a book about the Mayflower Pilgrims traveling to Massachusetts, perhaps getting seasick, finding life in the new world to be not as simple as they had imagined. But no. It had almost nothing to do with the Mayflower. Instead it was concerned with a history of the Reformation in 16th century England. Prior to that, before Gutenberg's printing press, the Bible was unavailable to normal people. Priests could say whatever they wanted during church services. Maybe just a load of rubbish. For example that people should give them money and in return expect to spend less time in the unpleasant fairy-tale world of "purgatory" after death before proceeding on to "judgement", at which they might expect to have special treatment, depending on the amount of money they had given. But then with the advent of printing, the idea of translating the Bible into common language was advanced. Of course the Church was strictly against such an idea. The Bible must remain a secret. Whoever challenged this credo would be subjected to the most horrible tortures the Church had to offer: burning at the stake, being broken on the wheel, and so on. And yet all over Europe people rebelled, reading their newly translated Bibles, asserting that Truth was to be found in their own readings rather than in the Church.
    It is astonishing how people take seriously such a long, rambling, self-contradicting collection of varied and obscure texts as is the Bible. Martin Luther asserted that he would only believe the evidence of his own senses - as long as that didn't contradict the Bible, in which case he would believe the Bible. Given such an attitude, people quarreled amongst themselves, splitting apart into a great array of different groups with different beliefs. But on the other hand, in England, Henry the 8th, who felt a great religious fervor in his attempts at procreating an official male offspring, declared that He, the King, not the Church, was the official source of religion in England. Of course there was the drama of Bloody Mary, and then the long reign of Elizabeth. She hated all this religious chaos and tried to clamp down on it, forcing people to conform to her official version of the Church (which had been cleansed of the worst abuses of the Catholic Church). The stubborn people who believed that the Bible said something else fled to the more tolerant Holland. There was a large community of these English people in Amsterdam, arguing with one another. The Mayflower Pilgrims removed themselves to Leiden where they lived in their own ghetto, cutting themselves off from the influences of the more open-minded Dutch people around them (we think of the sublime life and thoughts of Spinoza). Eventually they chartered a ship, the Mayflower, to take them away from Europe. It was a small group, including especially three children who had been rejected by their family and were essentially slaves, as well as a further number of "indentured servants" who also were taken along as slaves. An unpleasant and seedy little affair which we would prefer not to think about but which history proclaims to be of great importance.
    I happen to be writing this on Easter Sunday. In Germany it is the occasion for playing the music of Bach. His Saint Mathew Passion is surely the deepest, most moving music in the world. Listening to a performance on the radio in the evening a day or two ago was so moving that I was unable to sleep. According to the church, Christ suffered in order to "save" us. Such an egotistical idea! That the torture of someone else will cause me, personally, to have a nice comfortable time in some sort of imaginary afterlife. But the message of this music is not concerned with me. It is the tragedy of people inflicting great suffering on others.
    In the last few days, just before Easter, a retired American general told Congress that his country is demonstrating the "acme of professionalism" in getting the Ukraine to fight a war against Russia in the interests of the United States while not sacrificing a single American soldier. The Green Party, which we had thought was the party of peace, has declared that war is peace. The continuing and horrible suffering of the people of Ukraine has become their credo. Will it lead to their salvation?

The Other Renaissance, by Paul Strathern

     This is again about that troubled period, particularly of the 16th century. The book consists of 19 chapters, most of which describe the main characters of the renaissance who did not live in Italy, but rather those in the more northern part of Europe. For example there are chapters titled: Gutenberg; Jan van Eyck; Nicholas of Cusa; Copernicus; Erasmus; Dürer; Brahe and Kepler. I had never heard of that Cusa fellow before. Also there is a chapter devoted to Vesalius, another character I had never heard of. And then we have Catherine de Medici, Elizabeth of England, Frances I of France, Martin Luther... Well, it was an interesting book. But that is enough renaissance for now. It's better to play renaissance music than to read about it.

The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova

     This is a Dracula story. I haven't read the original one by Bram Stoker, but I suspect that this more modern story is very different from that. No dark, Gothic castles with creaking iron doors in the impenetrable mountains of Transylvania.
    It is thought that Bram Stoker's inspiration for Dracula might have been Vlad Tepes, a ruler of Wallachia in the 15th century. He is also known as Vlad the Impaler. Vlad's father was known as Vlad Dracul, or "Vlad the Dragon". The idea of impalement is horrible; Bram Stoker substituted the slightly less horrible idea of vampirism in his novel. This seems to be something which has fascinated people of many cultures through the ages. The present version, as I understand it, derives from the fact that if a newly dead person is buried in a coffin, particularly one which is waterproof, or if the soil is dry so that the process of decomposition drags on, then the body becomes bloated in unpleasant ways. The hair, the beard, the fingernails keep on growing for a time. If then the corpse is dug up for some reason, people are shocked to see that the dead seems to be still half living in some sort of degenerate, repugnant state. How is this possible?
    Perhaps the half dead soul emerges - in the darkness of night - to seek nourishment: the life blood of living people. The vampire lives on until it is finally killed by thrusting a silver dagger through its heart. Also, at least according to the version in the present book, a silver bullet shot from a pistol through the heart also suffices. And then we have the idea that the vampire is possessed of demoniacal powers. Since the Church is supposed to be the antithesis of the demon (in contradiction to reality), vampires are held at bay by crosses, crucifixes, christian amulets and so on. Also garlic is supposed to hold them off for some reason. If a person is bitten three times by a vampire, then he or she becomes a vampire too. I was a bit confused by the plot of the novel since the quest is to find the undead Vlad the Impaler and either stab or shoot him with a silver bullet, thus freeing humankind forever from the scourge of the vampires. What about all the other vampires he has spawned?
    The author is an American, but her surname shows that her ancestors must have immigrated from Eastern Europe. Bulgaria plays a prominent role in the present story, and I see that this is also the case in the other two novels she has written. It is rather a long book, but a fascinating read. I'm sure it is much more lightly written than Bram Stoker's Victorian version must be. We have three generations of historical researchers, jumping through the 20th century with its troubled history, each of which falls beautifully in love. They meet university colleagues in Istanbul, Budapest, Sofia, who are also part of the quest. It is not the gray, cold winter of Easter Europe but the green, flowering summer. We are led to one ancient monastery after the other, constantly looking them up in the Wikipedia, admiring the photos and the history. The ancient struggle of the Ottoman Turks with the Christians.

Days in the Caucasus, by Banine

     Banine's Parisian Days begins with her euphoric entrance into Paris on a train in 1923 when she was 18 years old. This book, which was published afterwards, ends with that scene. She tells us about her life growing up in Baku in Azerbaijan. The family practically swam in its oil riches. As Banine describes it, the family had adopted few of the refinements of civilized life. There was continuous, loud shouting, squabbles about money, sexual excesses. Her cousins, adolescent boys, engaged in sodomy. Their sister, Gulnar, who plays such a role in Parisian Days, is forced to remain, technically, a virgin until her marriage; she flirts to the limit with any male who comes near and then marries as quickly as possible in order to lose her virginity and thus be free to sleep with as many men as possible. But the young Banine is apart from this. She is shy, immersing herself in books, the piano. She imagines falling passionately in love with different men while still being a child. Reading through this became a bit tedious, even boring.
    Things changed with the Russian revolution of 1917. Suddenly bands of violent Armenians took over Baku and Banine's family escaped in one of their cargo ships on the Caspian Sea to Iran. They were able to return after a few months. Azerbaijan imagined that it had become an independent country. Banine's father was a highly placed minister in the short-lived government. Almost all of her immediate family left to live in Paris, leaving Banine alone with her father and other relatives. But soon the Bolsheviks arrived, imposing communism and a Soviet Republic, arresting the father and throwing him into prison. Banine fell madly in love with a Soviet officer, a Christian, a Russian; things hated by her Muslim family. She was only 15 years old.
    A distant relative whom she hated, 35 years old, did much to obtain the release of the father. He was then able to obtain a passport for the father to enable him to leave for Paris. The unspoken price was that he would marry Banine. Her love, the Russian officer, had asked her to marry, to come with him away from Baku. She was unable to bring herself to do this, and thus she married the man she hated in order for the father to escape, leaving her trapped. A bitter fate for a 15 year old girl with an Islamic father. But in the end, at the end of the book, she is free of all this.

Life's That Way, by Jim Beaver

     The Author is a Hollywood actor - from what I gather - typically as a western cowboy character. His wife was the actress Cecily Adams. It is said that she played a role in the Star Trek movie Deep Space Nine as an "alien". We watch almost no television, and of that, almost no Hollywood movies, so the names Jim Beaver and Cecily Adams meant nothing to me. We will soon have an optical glass fiber cable connected to the house, delivering huge numbers of bits every second. So who knows? Perhaps we might get an ultra high definition television in the future, absorbing 50 or 100 million bits per second, or even more, giving a crystal clear picture to compensate for the gradually deteriorating clarity of our aging eyes when watching these actors... Or perhaps not.
    In the autumn of 2003, Cecily Adams was diagnosed with lung cancer. The author tells us that it was difficult to separately telephone with all the relatives and their Hollywood friends to tell them individually about the situation. Therefore he decided to write an e-mail every evening and forward it to a list of 50 or more people. This went on for a year, drawing more and more people into sharing these very emotional e-mails. Not just relatives or close friends but more and more people who were just curious, concerned, even amused. Who knows? A few years later, in 2009, he collected these e-mails and had them published in the present book.
    Looking through Amazon for something to read other than the usual themes to be found in all of these novels, I was struck by the originality of the idea for this book, and so clicked on it. As you can see from the Amazon page for the book, almost everybody gave it 5 stars. How could you give it less? How heartless it would be to criticize a man describing day for day the process of his wife dying, how he weeps for hours on end, cries out, tells us how she was the most perfect and wonderful woman in the world. How he loves her. She is "Cec", and in the end he tells us their most intimate way of calling each other "Pie". And then there is the two year old daughter, Maddie, who had been diagnosed with autism. How he loves her. How she is given therapy for the condition. How in the end she miraculously recovers to become again normal. Is it voyeurism to read something like this? Is it an embarrassment? For the author?
    After all the gushing tears, the outpourings of love, the desperation, the hopelessness, we are gradually told more and more about what life really was like. Both the author and his wife come across as thin-skinned, touchy people. There was shouting, arguments. Even in the last days of her death, the husband was so angry with her on the telephone that he slammed it down with such force that he thought he had broken his finger, and he went to the emergency room of the hospital to have a splint attached. (Clearly this was before the days of these horrible "smart" phones which cannot be so dramatically slammed down.) At one stage when they were in a temporary house and simply had the mattress on the floor, he tried as carefully as possible to carry her to the bed, laying her down gently, and she angrily shouted at him despite the fact that he was doing his best. He tells us that she was always feeling sick, staying at home, being waited on, complaining. As a child she had discovered that it was pleasant to be sick, to have her mother come and comfort her.
    ...So many deeply personal things we don't really want to know about. I found myself skimming through the last part of the book, just to see what happens in the end, not reading through all of these emotional outbursts. It ends with pages and pages of confessions.
    In the weeks of her death it was also discovered that Cecily's brother had developed cancer of the brain. And then we hear of other people they know with cancer, not to mention the older generation also dying off.
    Why is it that a woman of 46 dies of lung cancer, even though she had given up smoking 20 years before? Why did her 2 year old daughter suddenly develop the symptoms of autism? When telling us how perfect his wife was, he says that her life was a picture of healthy living. When later a lawyer who was interested in organic foods suggested that she would not have contracted cancer if she had lived in a healthy way, the author nearly punched her out of the house. He angrily tells her that his wife knew more about such things than she did.
    But then he tells us about the medicines she had taken all her life. And how it was such a fight to conceive their daughter. After all, she must have been 43 or 44 years old. We are told that she took strong medicines which made her ill, nauseous, in order to achieve a sufficient level of fertility in her aging body. And how is it that Maddie, the daughter, suddenly stopped talking, looking vacuously into the distance for hours at a time to be followed by hours of hysterical screaming?
    As we have learned, California is truly the epicenter of medical drug abuse. Babies are injected with astonishing numbers of "vaccines", filled with questionable ingredients. Who knows what the consequences of fertility drugs are? It is said that 60 or more years ago autism was unknown, or at least it was so seldom that doctors were unfamiliar with it. And what was the probability in those days, before this drug culture overwhelmed us, that two middle aged siblings simultaneously developed two different forms of deadly cancers?
    In one or two places in the book the author expresses astonishment about the costs of medical treatments. His insurance covers most of it and he has further insurance to cover three quarters of the rest. But he tells us that a CT (computer tomography) in the hospital costs $10,000, and he compares this with another CT they had in a private clinic, not in a hospital, which "only" cost $1,000. As I have probably mentioned at various times here, my philosophy is to avoid medical doctors as much as possible. Statistics show that the average German goes to a doctor something like 9.5 times per year. In contrast with this, the figure for Sweden is only 2.2 visits each year. And of course the average Swede is healthier and lives about 2 years longer than the average German.
    Dying is something we will all go through, sooner or later. There is certainly no way around it. One might believe that, as in a computer game, dying advances one up to the "next level", whatever it might be. Who knows? I am open to all sorts of speculations. In the concrete story of the book, Cecily is afraid of death and she is afraid of not being with her daughter Maddie. And so Jim tells us how he continually admonishes her to fight on; that they will get through this together; that of course she will be saved and they will live on for another 50 years in their new house and Maddie will grow up with them together. All of this is related spontaneously in his daily e-mails as he has just experienced it. An hysterical optimism. Everything must be optimistic, no false thoughts allowed.
    Six months after she has died, after many days of weeping, counselings about how to cope with grief, telling us his innermost thoughts, the author gives us a list of things you shouldn't say to a grieving person, such as: "You need to be strong" or "You should not feel bad". Such things made him angry, or produced further spasms of weeping. But surely the same rules should apply to a dying person. Do they really want to be surrounded by hysterical optimism? Isn't it better to be calm. To listen to the person, understand their thoughts, their fears, and accept them. Be peaceful.

Albert Camus: A Life, by Olivier Todd

    The Wikipedia page of Albert Camus describes the details of his life in a nutshell. He wrote much: novels, essays, columns for newspapers, plays. In fact he occasionally acted in his own plays, directing and producing them as well. But I had only read his famous The Stranger. My knowledge of the French language is less than rudimentary (if only slightly greater than nonexistent). Still, my understanding is that the original title of the book, L'Étranger, can be primarily translated into English as "The Foreigner"; a secondary meaning would be "The Stranger". This reflects the difficult relationship Camus had with his native born Algeria. He was not a "native": an Arab or a Berber. Rather he was a pied-noir, a descendant of European French settlers of the early 19th century.
    Later, in Paris as the famous author, Nobel Prize winner and socialist, he was at first close friends with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, but then they had a falling out. Camus was rightly skeptical of the supposed "paradise" of the Soviet Union. But also all those other socialists and communists in France supported the FLN, fighting for the independence of Algeria. Camus, whose family remained in Algeria, condemned both the FLN and the French Army for its abuses, saying that people should learn to live in peace with one another.
    Was Algeria a colony of France? How does one define a colony? For example is Scotland a colony of England? Is Hawaii a colony of the United States? Most people today would say that in both of these cases the native people and the immigrant people should try to live peacefully together. Similarly France considers Tahiti and New Caledonia to be parts of France itself. Maybe a place could be said to be a "colony" if it is being unfairly exploited by the people in some other place. Was this the case with Algeria? Certainly Camus, who grew up in poverty, would not say so. An alternative view might be that the native population of Algeria became caught up in the violent excitement of a pan-Arab movement, an essentially racist - or perhaps religious - idea, excluding people who were not Arabs. Camus' call for peace led to him being reviled both in Algeria and in the left-wing, socialist movements of France. I wonder if the people of the present-day Algeria might see things differently.
    And then the book tells us about all of the women in Camus' life. Apparently they threw themselves at him, similarly to the experiences of President Kennedy or Frank Sinatra. It was said that Camus considered sleeping with a woman to be nothing more than having a casual drink. He had two children with his second wife, but I wonder about all the other women. His first wife, who he married when he was only 20, was addicted to morphine. He met his second (and final) wife, Francine Faure, in the Algerian city of Oran. He was a penniless author and she was the daughter of an established family. A beautiful woman; a pianist of almost concert level; a teacher of mathematics. She was totally devoted to Camus and suffered deep depression with his womanizing. But perhaps the worst was his enduring love for the actress Maria Casares.

The Plague, by Albert Camus

    Well, I must confess that I stopped reading this one after getting only halfway through; it bored me. The story takes place in the real-life Oran in Algeria. It is a French city, and so we imagine the story to be some time in the 1930s, before Algerian independence. Rats dying everywhere. Then gradually people start dying as well with all the characteristic symptoms of the bubonic plague. I was astonished to read that in the western states of the United States, cases of plague are being reported even today. It seems that the fleas have infected the wild rats of the mountains and the prairies. It is a deadly disease which can be treated with antibiotics. I don't know how people were able to treat it back in the 1930s.
    As Pepys described the London Plague in his diary, people went about life normally. Those who could, traveled away to stay someplace else until the disease died down. The houses where cases of plague occurred were quarantined, shut up for some time until presumably the infection had passed. In the present novel it is imagined that similar measures are taken. But in addition, the whole city of Oran is quarantined. That is, people live normally, going to restaurants, meeting one another, but they are not allowed to leave the city. One of the characters, an outsider, keeps trying to leave, but at each twist in the story he is blocked. We think of Franz Kafka. It is said that the book is an allegory of the conditions in closed, repressive dictatorships.
    All of this is completely different from the absurd, fake "plague" which was imposed upon us starting in 2020. Healthy people were forced into quarantine (or "lock-down": that repulsive word used in prisons). Sick people, those in old peoples homes, were forced out so that they could infect others. Everybody was forced to re-breathe their own breaths, concealing their noses and mouths behind masks. Hospitals refused sensible treatments for the sick, instead giving patients untested, poisonous medicines and then murdering them with ventilation machines. It was a plague of billionaires, led on by William Henry "Bill" Gates III, increasing their riches by peddling their genetic injections, hoping that somehow, by becoming richer and richer, they might become godlike, avoiding their own mortality. But they were too greedy. If they had only required people to be injected just once then I can imagine that they could have fulfilled their ambitions. But they tried to force people to repeat the injections over and over again, something which even the most subservient, compliant person would eventually question. And thus also the unelected commissioners of the European Union have been shown to be the greedy frauds that they are.

From Warsaw with Love, by John Pomfret

    The Poles seem to be the greatest cheerleaders for the Neocon's war with Russia, killing off hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, depopulating the country, and John Pomfret, writing this book in a breathless style, is a cheerleader for the good old USA and its CIA in bringing the Poles in from the cold of communism to the friendly warmth of NATO.
    To understand this whole unfortunate business we should think about the history of Poland. At the beginning of the 17th century, Poland, together with Lithuania, occupied a large territory in Eastern Europe. Over time, through wars and other things, the territory gradually diminished and was then finally dissolved by the Congress of Vienna of 1815 which established the order of Europe after the defeat of Napoleon. The Polish speaking peoples were divided between Prussia, Russia and Austria. Many of them emigrated to the United States. After World War I, the Treaty of Versailles created a new territory which was designated as Poland. Then we had World War II and the Stalin-Hitler Pact of 1939, dividing up the territory between Germany and Russia. After the war, Stalin declared that Russia must be compensated for all its losses, and so it retained a large part of the territory it had grabbed in 1939, and to compensate for that, the newly defined territory of Poland expanded to the west, encompassing a large part of what was defined as Germany before the war. Finally, in 1989 communism collapsed, leaving the former countries and Soviet Republics of Eastern Europe free to do what they wanted.
    I remember that time, thinking how wonderful it is that the world can now experience a long period of peace, free of those old conflicts.
    But no.
    As with the end of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, excitable people began discovering their ancient lands and linguistic barriers. The different parts of Yugoslavia - which was a construction of the Versailles treaty - fought one another in a sequence of horrible little wars, particularly encouraged by Germany and the United States. Czechoslovakia separated more peacefully into its two natural halves.
    During the Cold War, some German politicians, especially those in Bavaria, pandered to the people who had been displaced from what used to be Eastern Germany. There were annual conventions of those who had come from Silesia and Pomerania. They dressed up in their traditional costumes, the bands played and the Bavarian politicians told them that eventually the injustice would be made right. And so the years went by. The original displaced people became older and older and their children and grandchildren found it to be embarrassing to wear those silly costumes. But at least the politicians kept getting reelected and the conventions became a fixed holiday and celebration. It was an annual folklore get-together for old times sake. Hardly anyone took it seriously. And after 1989 and the unification of communist East Germany with West Germany, all of that Silesian and Pomeranian folklore seems to have disappeared.
    But it was taken seriously in Poland. How could they forget all of this history? Austro-Hungary had degenerated into two little countries of little importance. Russia had already taken their piece of what had been Poland. In fact it had become parts of Belarus and Ukraine. The Poles perceived that there was a danger of Germany wanting its pieces back. Who would protect them from Germany? The idea of just being neutral was out of the question. They needed to become closely allied to the United States.
    But the fact is that Germany remains an occupied country with countless American military bases. The other victorious countries that occupied Germany after the end of World War II: Russia, France and England, have gradually withdrawn, but the United States maintains its presence into the future, controlling the German government (as we can see in the present behavior of the Socialist and the Green parties). As long as the United States continues to exist there is no way that Germany would suddenly start to invade Poland. And even if the United States did not exist, given the disastrous experiences of the World Wars there is no way that Germany would even think of invading Poland... But still, after 1989, Poland was hell-bent on the idea of joining NATO.
    Back then, Poland was hardly being mentioned in the "news". After all, the cold war had ended. Everything was good. People could travel freely. Many Polish people settled here in Germany. But reading this book, I see that the Polish government, and particularly the Polish secret service, were doing everything to achieve their goal of NATO membership. Lots of lobbying in Washington. In those days only very few people in Washington wanted to expand NATO. Almost everybody was opposed to the idea. The Poles sought every possibility for making themselves useful to the Americans. In a long chapter of the book, a daring operation to smuggle six Americans out of Iraq just before the American war against Iraq in 1990 is described, organized by the Polish secret service. (Of course the book does not mention the meeting of the American ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, with Saddam Hussein, on the 25th of July, 1990, when she encouraged him to invade Kuwait.) President George H.W. Bush was euphoric with the success of the operation and he promised to have Poland's foreign debts cancelled. The lobbying increased, the Main Stream Media was brought under control so that gradually the idea of NATO expanding to include Poland was no longer considered to be a dangerous provocation. The substantial ethnic Polish population of the United States celebrated.
    And so NATO was brought up to the borders of Russia, loaded with rockets (and atomic bombs?). Russia was declared to be the enemy. The Neocons, led on by Victoria Nuland, meddled in all of this, provoking the modern Ukrainian Banderites to its terror, inspired by the Nazi terror against Jews, Poles and Romani, but in its present reincarnation principally directed against Russian speaking people. And the result is catastrophe, apparently cheered on by Poland. There are those who say that Poland would like to regain the territories in the present day territory of Ukraine which were part of the territory which was defined to be Poland between 1919 and 1939. Who knows? Hopefully, eventually, peace might return.

Prime Obsession, by John Derbyshire

    The subtitle of the book is: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics. I had thought that it would be primarily a biography of Riemann, but we are told that very little is known of his personal life. He was good friends with Dirichlet who appended some biographical notes to the volume of Riemann's collected papers, published some years after his death. And so we read short sketches of their lives and also of the lives of a few other mathematicians of the 19th century. But the ambition of the book is to describe Riemann's zeta function and the Riemann Hypothesis in such a way as to make these things understandable to someone who had not studied mathematics, or perhaps someone who was a student just beginning a first year course in mathematics.
    It starts off in the style of the first lecture of an Analysis 1 course for a beginning student, describing how analysis is based on the idea of convergent series. We have a long-winded chapter describing what prime numbers are, at least within the realm of the positive whole numbers. We learn what it means to raise a number to some power. That is... 2 squared is 4. And so forth. All of this with huge amounts of examples with numbers written out to the 10th or 15th place after the decimal point. The book was first published in 2003, so the author must have been enjoying fiddling with some sort of mathematical computer software. But I can't imagine that a non-mathematician, wading through all of these trivial yet tedious examples, would be similarly excited. I just flipped through all this, looking for the more interesting biographical details.
    Soon the author introduces the zeta function for real values greater than 1, defined as the infinite sum found by Euler. But immediately an argument is used to extend it to the region between 0 and 1. More or less plausible. No proof. The non-mathematician, or the beginning student will not understand this. What is he or she to do? Just accept things without understanding them? And so it goes on. The idea of analytic continuation is not even mentioned despite the fact that it is the basis of understanding the zeta function. As we progress further and further things become sketchier and sketchier. Various ideas are thrown about which the author has picked up in his conversations with mathematicians who are presently working in this field. He tells us that he doesn't understand these things himself. And I certainly don't understand them even though I have given lectures on the elementary beginnings to this subject. Some of these half-understood details are indeed interesting. Much speculation. All of this would not be so bad if the author had not thought it necessary to fill up his book with complicated mathematical-looking formulas, the background to which is simply left out, undoubtedly rendering them totally incomprehensible to the non-mathematical reader. It would be better to try to understand the ideas by reading the Wikipedia articles on these subjects which I have linked to here where these things are described with much less fuss, although of course the relevant background is still required.
    It has been said that for a book written for the non-specialist, the number of possible readers drops by half with each mathematical formula which it contains. If true, then following the examples in this book, raising the number one half to about the thousandth power, using John Derbyshire's mathematical software, we will arrive at the conclusion that only 0,0000000.......something people will read the book. In fact, much less than one, a number so small that we can simply round it down to zero. The fact that numbers of people have read the book, giving it 5 stars on amazon, awarding it a prize by the Mathematical Association of America, shows that either: (i) more people that you think have studied mathematics at post-graduate level and are actively involved in the field of analytic number theory, or else (ii) more people than you think are prepared to praise something that they don't understand.
    Why are people obsessed with prime numbers? There are lots of other things in mathematics and in life which are also interesting. Only a small proportion of Bernhard Riemann's discoveries were concerned with the zeta function, and it is only speculation that his thoughts on the Hypothesis went much beyond the remark in his famous Lecture.

Mrs Jordan's Profession, by Claire Tomalin

    This is a biography of Dorothea Jordan, the most famous and beloved English actress during her career around the turn of the 18th to the 19th centuries. People wrote of her wonderful, captivating voice, like sweet, ripe fruit. I try to imagine what it must have been like. The only actress I know of with a voice that could be so described is Romy Schneider. But unlike Dorothea - or Dora as she was always known - Romy Schneider was a tragic figure. And I don't know if she sang. Dora Jordan could bring the two thousand and more visitors at the huge Theatre Royal at Drury Lane to tears, of joy, with her songs. With her happy being. They laughed along with her. She had them in her hand, night after night, throughout her career of over thirty years. Half of her roles were in Shakespeare, filled with song, but also contemporary plays, in particular The Country Girl.
    She is also remembered for being together with the future King William IV for over 20 years, having 10 children with him. In fact she had 14 children in all. In those days it was nothing special for an actress to perform even in a state of high pregnancy; roles for which pregnancy would be out of place: for example playing a male character. The audience found this to be quite normal. Despite constantly performing, touring the country, she was a dedicated, loving mother to all her children.
    She grew up in Dublin as Dorothea Bland. Her father, Frances Bland apparently married her mother and they had six children, but then he abandoned the family to marry someone else, using the argument that the first marriage was without the agreement of his father when he was still less than 25, or whatever it was, and was thus illegal. And such an argument was upheld in the law of the time! The family was left practically destitute. Dora began her acting career as a child to support the family. Then the manager of the theater in Dublin, Richard Daly, made her pregnant against her will. Disgusted, she left for England where she performed with a touring company for three years, eventually making a triumphant entry onto the London stage. Richard Ford, the son of one of the owners of the Drury Lane theater, promised marriage if he could get the approval of his father. They lived together, everywhere recognized as husband and wife, having three children. Yet he continued to hesitate to marry her.  Her many admirers included William, the Duke of Clarence, and she confronted Ford, saying that if he would not marry her then she would go to William. And thus began her 20 years together with the future king. It seemed an ideal relationship. He was a devoted father and he loved Dora. But she was a commoner, and even worse, a famous, celebrated actress. There was no question of marriage, and indeed she was completely excluded from the rest of the royal family. William was the third son of King George III who placed impossible restrictions on his children, not allowing them to have sensible marriages. Thus his daughters remained unmarried and his sons produced numbers of illegitimate children, but no official progeny to inherit the throne. The result was that the monarchy was considered to be degenerate and many thought it should be done away with. But with the death of William III, the young Victoria from another branch of the royal family was brought in to be queen.
    Given this situation, after 20 years with Dora and the pressures of the aristocracy, William tried to find a legitimate wife. He wooed one woman after another of the various European royal families, being rejected, but finally marrying a German princess. Dora received a substantial yearly sum added to her income from the theater. But William was deeply in debt. Dora had tried to help him during their time together, giving him large sums from her own income, but his expenditures were simply to great. For example he had Clarence House built in London which, at the time of writing, is the official residence of King Charles III and his Queen Camille.
    Dora was always generous, giving freely to her children. The daughters from Richard Ford married and their husbands saw no reason to have professions and work, given all the money which seemed to be freely flowing about. She went on a last tour, earning enough to retire into old age in comfort. But being overly trusting, she had signed some sort of agreement with one of her sons in law, leaving the details blank. And he robbed her of everything, leaving her deeply in debt and in danger of being arrested and thrown into a debtors prison. She fled to France, living anonymously in Paris, destitute, where she died. Such a sad ending, and such a contrast with her wonderful life.
    Her daughters with William married into the high aristocracy, being accepted into a society from which Dora was excluded, while the sons in their military careers were the "bastards", the laughing stock of the other officers.

The Jakarta Method, by Vincent Bevins

    At the end of the Second World War all of those countries of the "third world" which had been colonies of countries of the "first world" had the ambition to become independent. (Of course the "second world" was the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites.) Also many people in the countries of Latin America wished to become more independent of the United States and the oppressive local oligarchs which it supported. All of them had suffered under the excesses of an out of control capital system and dreamed of a more just society. They had not known the "invisible hand" of Adam Smith. Instead they had only experienced the very visible and brutal hand of their colonial or neo-colonial masters. What was the alternative to this rapacious, out of control capitalism? Should we call it socialism? Or communism? The groups who called themselves communists had little or no contact with the government of the Soviet Union which everybody could see was also a repressive system. And yet, particularly in the United States, a witch-hunt developed, finding "communists" everywhere. A religion. The Evil, the Devil, must be found and destroyed. The greatest believers in this new religion were the oligarchs who were afraid that their riches and their future riches might be endangered.
    Encouraged by the CIA and the other secret services of the USA, horrible campaigns of violence and torture were carried out throughout Latin America, especially in Brazil, eliminating completely all possibility of change. Of course there was Vietnam. But the worst excesses were in Indonesia where Suharto was installed in power with the murder and torture of millions of people, accompanied by almost unimaginably horrible excesses. The surviving population has been cowed into a state of frighted timidity, afraid to think of anything which might be even slightly contrary to the wishes of their masters and of the USA. This is the title of the book. The Jakarta Method.
    And so now, as I am writing this, the skies over Germany are rumbling with what is said to be the largest maneuver NATO has ever performed, with a couple of hundred airplanes flying impotently in circles around one another. Will Russia, which has recovered from both the evils of Stalin and the oligarchs of the Yeltsin era, avoid becoming the latest victim of the Jakarta Method? Hopefully we might emerge from this dangerous time into a more benign world with different systems and different countries competing peacefully with one another.

Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin

    I had always imagined Jane Austen to be a withdrawn, introverted type of person, sitting alone at home writing her romances while regretting the lack of romance in her own life. But this book tells a different story. Her father was rector of the church in the obscure village of Steventon. It was a large family, many brothers and sisters. Lots of cousins, uncles and aunts. Some very rich. But the Austen family existed on the modest income the father derived from the church and from his private school, boarding a few boys from more well to do families. There was no question of a dowry for the daughters; prospective husbands would certainly not be marrying into a fortune. And yet one of the sons inherited a large estate and fortune from a great aunt. Other sons went into the navy - one becoming in later life an admiral - or became ministers of the church. When Jane Austen was a child amateur plays were performed by the family together with other members of the gentry class in the neighborhood: Shakespeare as well as more contemporary plays, for example those which Mrs. Jordan had been acting in. When writing letters to one another they often wrote in poetry. Other members of the Austen family also had literary ambitions.
    When Jane was perhaps 20 she fell in love with a visitor from Ireland, a relative of some neighbors, and he was in love with her. But he had no income and so he was quickly sent back. There was no question of marriage. Later, when she was 30 or more, one of the squires asked her to marry him. She said yes, but then after a sleepless night she withdrew her consent.  It would have been a relief for the family, financially, if she had gone through with it. The man later married someone else and we read that although he had a slight speech impediment, he lived on with a large, happy family of his own. But Jane Austen said that she could only marry someone she deeply loved.
    She was very close to her older sister Cassandra who had been engaged to someone who died before the marriage could take place. Cassandra then resolved never to marry, and perhaps Jane went along with that. They gradually took on the roles of looking after all the various children of their brothers and sisters and cousins, traveling for extensive stays at the different houses of the relatives spaced about in England. Jane Austen's first books were published anonymously, to much acclaim. But she hardly earned more than a small pocket money from the royalties before she died at a young age.
    I've forgotten which of her books I've read. Certainly I did read Persuasion some time ago and wrote about it here. Undoubtedly also Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility many years ago, all lost to memory and confused with the various television films of the books. I have certainly never read Emma, and so I downloaded that book via, but quickly got bored with it, irritated with the main character, and gave up.
    There was strange casting in the recent Netflix film of Persuasion, very different from the older BBC film. But perhaps the BBC version, reflecting the fairy tale fluff of much of its present "news" coverage, may be the less authentic of the two.

A Plague Upon Our House, by Scott W. Atlas, M.D.

    When the inmates of a prison become unruly the authorities sometimes order a lockdown. The prisoners are locked into their cells. The prison guards might come in to the individual cells; heaven knows what they do to the prisoners there. And who knows what happens in cells filled with larger groups of criminals locked together inside, consumed with anger and frustration. In the year 2020 many people who had not thought that they were in a prison suddenly found themselves to be locked down. In some of the cells, horrible things took place. Cases of wife beatings multiplied. There was a dramatic surge of young children beaten senseless, taken to hospital, thought to be dead, locked in together with their tormentors.
    Here in Germany, owing to the memory of the Nazi GESTAPO and the communist STASI, there was no real lockdown. I just went on with my life, practicing the viol, going for walks and runs, bicycling, reading, observing people walking in the open with silly cloths on their faces. The only restriction was that when going to the shops people were required to wear some sort of mask. We only shop once a week, so I only had to endure that suffocating masked feeling for a half hour or so. For some months - too many - schoolchildren were required to sit in school the whole day, masked. I don't know how much they suffered, but they do seem to be back to normal now. At first in the shops some people made fun of the whole business wearing World War I gas masks. I also saw one or two people wearing those birdlike, beaked masks one sees in pictures of doctors in the middle ages during the plague. In fact I even looked it up in and found numbers of such plague masks on offer, but I didn't bother ordering one. It was said to be illegal for more than two people, or whatever it was, to gather together in a house (exceptions were made for families). Yet a friend told us of clandestine parties in isolated houses where everybody got together, sang songs, had dinner, played music, and discussed the evils of the world.
    It seems that the madness was most extreme in the United States, and unfortunately it was equally extreme in the other English speaking countries - the so-called FIVE EYES. While the Wikipedia is a good thing for quickly looking up a fact or two, it is also very much an organ of the FIVE EYES. For example we can have a look at the Wikipedia page of the author of this present book and have a laugh... or a frown of despair. He has had a very distinguished academic career and has advised political institutions and government agencies of all kinds for many years. As the lockdown fever - a symptom of the hysteria - began to spread through society, he wrote various articles, pointing out the dire consequences. These were noticed and he was asked to come to Washington. Although he was working continuously, reading all the medical literature as it was coming out, he brought along a copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland for light reading in the evening to go to sleep. But he soon discovered that the real-life COVID rabbit hole was more strange and absurd than anything Lewis Carroll had imagined.
    The face of COVID-mania on television was Anthony Fauci, who was also present in the various meetings of the official Task Force. But the real power was with Deborah Brix. The author only became a member of the Task Force in the summer of 2020 when things had settled down into a fixed routine. The message was LOCKDOWN, LOCKDOWN, LOCKDOWN, accompanied by TESTING, TESTING, TESTING, and MASKS, MASKS, MASKS. The meetings were chaired by Vice President Pence. He was extremely nice to everybody, and our author, Scott Atlas, was enthusiastically greeted. Everybody told him how wonderful it was to have such a distinguished person on the Committee. Only Brix, Fauci, Atlas and another name I've forgotten had any medical qualifications. The others were political advisers who were either trying to get Trump reelected or else gotten rid of. At first good old Scott, as everybody called him, enthusiastically described all the latest published research on COVID, the effects of the lockdowns, the masks, and the testing. He described what he thought was the best strategy: opening schools since children had essentially zero risk from the virus, but isolating and testing more strongly the risk groups - the elderly, the obese. Everybody listened politely with glazed eyes as he described in detail the latest literature, the science. Then Vice President Pence thanked him very politely, as did everybody else, a resolution was passed to increase even further the lockdowns, the testing, the masks, for everyone, and Dr. Brix resumed her strenuous mission, touring the country, spreading the Message.
    At one meeting, Deb (that is Dr. Brix) mentioned a possible consequence of the virus, struggling to mispronounce a complicated technical word which described some sort of medical condition. But Scott realized that Deb didn't know what she was talking about. He explained what the word was, what the condition was, and the fact that he had personally dealt with hundreds of patients with the condition. Tony (that is Dr. Fauci), after a few embarrassing demonstrations of his ignorance when responding to Scott's descriptions of the latest medical research, kept his mouth shut and simply followed everything Deb had to say. But under the surface, everything was not sweet and honey. Once, after the Vice President left, Deb shouted at Scott in front of the others never to embarrass her like that again. The fact of the mater is that both Deb and Tony had spent their lives in government bureaucracy, out of touch with The Science. And Scott learned that nobody seemed to know how Deb became part of the team. They told him that she just seemed to have appeared from somewhere and had taken over control of everything.
    The author had various meetings with President Trump. He tells us that Trump was very focused, asking sensible, relevant questions, trying to understand what would be best. But of course he was nothing more than the despised laughing stock of Washington. His word was worthless, or at most it was worth making fun of in the "news" media. According to the MESSAGE, Trump was the real Hitler. The stooge of Putin. And the fact that Scott Atlas sometimes accompanied Trump to his press conferences made him also a part of this real Hitler. Perhaps he was the real Dr Mengele. People spit at him in the streets. They shouted in his face that he was advocating the evil of Herd Immunity. Somebody should have the courage to kill him. Rid the world of fucking scum like him.
    What possible reason could these hysterical people have had to accuse a distinguished doctor, a leading professor in the most elite universities in the country, of being in favor of "herd immunity", as if that was something monstrous? After all, corona viruses are, next to rhinoviruses the main causes of common colds. They mutate quickly. People get mild colds every so often and their immune systems become "updated" to recognize the new variants. More aggressive variants cause people to stay in bed for a couple of days, and so they are not spread through the population so easily. They die out and the mild but more infectious versions survive.
    My problem with this book is that on the one hand the author describes in detail the literature which shows that masks are useless when it comes to corona viruses. He also describes the well known problems with PCR tests and with only testing for antibodies without taking into account the various cells of the immune system which give long term immunity. Still, in his meetings in Washington his message was to spare the children, but to subject older people to more and more testing, isolation, masks. The nurses should be tested every day, masked continuously. And he was for cutting corners even further with "Operation Warp Speed", rushing genetic injections into the public before they had been properly tested. I suppose that now, after being spat at and threatened with murder, he might be doubling down, telling people that genetic injections are a wonderful thing and they should be applied in the future to all possible infectious diseases.
    And so we are left with Donald Trump. I had thought of him as a meaningless clown. At least he didn't start any new wars. But his actions were as dreadful as with all the rest of them. He increased the military buildup of Ukraine. He had General Soleimani of Iran murdered, using a cowardly drone strike. He brought in the despicable John Bolton to destroy all the peace initiatives he had started with other countries. He gave many billions to the pharmaceutical oligarchs in his Operation Warp Speed. But who knows? Perhaps he had nothing to do with all this, being powerless in the face of the hostile media, Washington bureaucracy, and all that. He was left to deal with the world by means of a few pathetic "tweets" in the internet. If we are to believe Scott Atlas then at the deep epicenter of this madness, at the bottom of the rabbit hole which seems to be leading us more and more quickly toward nuclear Armageddon, there might be a loudmouthed, discredited, powerless clown who is sane in the midst of all this insanity. But Trump should get out of politics since his role seems to have become to simply goad the other oligarchs into increasing even further their greedy desire for the profits to be gained from wars and drugs.

Miles from Nowhere, by Barbara Savage

    This is the story of a bicycle trip around the world by the author and her husband in 1978-80.  They started out in their native Southern California, heading north into Canada then down through the United States to eventually end up in Key West, Florida. They then flew across to Spain, took an unpleasant detour into Morocco, went to England and Scotland before peddling across the Continent to Athens. Then another extremely unpleasant detour to Egypt before flying on to India where they bicycled through to Nepal. They flew from Kathmandu to Bangkok, bicycled from there to Singapore, then flew to New Zealand where they bicycled around both islands, then flew to Tahiti for a couple of weeks before finally flying back to California. It was a very enjoyable story to read. A road trip. Very strenuous. Perhaps there have been people who have done the thing in an even more strenuous fashion, filling in the gaps that the Savages flew over. For example you could also include a trip around South America. And then you could bicycle across North Africa from Morocco to Egypt rather then enjoying the comforts of Europe. From Egypt overland to India would take you through Iraq or Syria, Iran and Pakistan. For United States Americans that would certainly be impossible now, but perhaps not in 1979. Then from Nepal one would cycle through Bangladesh and Burma to get to Bangkok. From Singapore one could travel through Indonesia and then fly to Perth in Western Australia before bicycling to Sydney, and then flying on to New Zealand. Has anybody done such a ridiculously difficult tour? The Savages did want to take in the crossing of Australia, but a very rude and unhelpful diplomat refused to issue them with visas. The short forays into Muslim countries demonstrated what a horror Islamic men are to a woman on a bicycle, even when accompanied by her husband. How can we explain their primitive, repulsive urges, unrestrained by any civilizing influence?
    The book tells us about where bicycling is good and where it is bad. For example Florida is very bad. Drivers of cars and trucks tried to force them off the road, nearly hitting them, shouting obscenities. Of course Morocco was bad, but Egypt was the worst of the horror. North Dakota was endlessly boring with constant stormy headwinds. And lots of mosquitoes. Scotland was great, as was Nepal (if extremely dirty), and according to the Savages, New Zealand was an absolute bikers paradise.
    When crossing from eastern France to Austria they had a short stretch through southern Germany, and they found it to be extremely unfriendly when farmers refused to allow them to camp in their tent on their properties. Everywhere else they had been welcomed with open arms. But perhaps they misunderstood the bicycling culture of northern Europe. Many people go on bicycle holidays for a week or two. There are bicycle paths everywhere, taking you through woods or open fields, free of motor traffic. In particular along the rivers there are designated bicycle routes, often going for hundreds of kilometers. There are small hotels or pensions which especially welcome bicyclists. And of course there are countless camping grounds along these routes. In contrast to all this, when traveling through North America, along the highways, stopping at farms, people were astonished to see them. The whole idea of long distance bicycling was something new, strange. And so the farmers welcomed this unusual couple. But a Bavarian farmer, with hundreds of bicycles passing along the paths near his land, would obviously tell these two Americans to just go into the hotel or the camping ground down the road where there would be proper washing and toilet facilities for them.
    In fact our first bicycle tour was just then, in 1979 if I remember it correctly. We went by train to Ostende in Belgium and traveled along the coast to Texel in Holland. We took a week, staying in hotels in the towns along the way, having dinner in the hotel restaurant and a nice breakfast the next morning. We took our time, maybe only covering 50 or 60 kilometers each day. One day we even traveled 100km, but that was too much, and I suppose we took it easy the next day to recover. I was astonished to read of the distances the Savages covered, related in terms of miles. They rode far more miles in a day than we would cover when reducing that figure to kilometers. A few years ago, 30 or more years later, we bicycled from here to Stuttgart, and then started along the Danube bicycle route. Now, for our 75th birthdays we have gotten electrical bicycles, very nice machines from KTM, an Austrian firm. Bicycling is a breeze. It would be nice to spend a longer time traveling further and further along the Danube bicycle trail. Staying in hotels, thank you, and enjoying the restaurants along the way.
    One thing that struck me when reading the book was the extremely friendly, welcoming, embracing people they met everywhere in New Zealand, especially on the North Island. How can we then understand the fact that New Zealand went all the way with these recent lock downs, masks, injections, and all the rest? The idea of freedom was crushed. But perhaps the people the Savages were meeting in New Zealand were the people of the land, not those of the towns and cities. After all, even such a repulsive woman as Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand Prime Minister, a "Young Global Leader" of the World Economic Forum with her equine face, following the orders of her leader, Klaus Schwab, was surely unable to send the police to force farmers on isolated farms to stay inside.

A Cabinet of Byzantine Curisoities, by Anthony Kaldellis

    I read an article about the Byzantine Empire recently in the internet describing how long-lived it was, existing for over a thousand years, maintaining a civilized style of life all through the period when Western, Latin Europe was supposed to be in a "Dark Age". The author was the author of this book, someone who is apparently a great figure in the study of Byzantium. I would have liked to read one of his histories, written from a more modern point of view than, say, that of Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall, but the Kindle editions are priced as highly as are the real books which are bound and made of paper. I refuse to give Amazon so much for that. Perhaps I should look in the University library, a place I have not seen for years now. This book was being offered for a normal price. It is a collection of a few hundred disjointed anecdotes, quoting Byzantine sources. Chapter titles are: Marriage and the Family, Unorthodox Sex, Animals, Food and Dining, Eunuchs, Medical Practice, and so on. Much of it rude. This is not great literature, but still it is sometimes interesting.

Perfect Rigour, by Masha Gessen

    This is the story of Grigori Perelman, the person who proved the Poincaré Conjecture. The author of this book, Masha Gessen, was born in Russia into a family of Jewish heritage and as a child he took part in mathematics competitions, thus sharing these attributes with Grigori Perelman. According to the Wikipedia, the author is "Russia's leading LGBT rights activist". Rather than being a he or a she, the article uses the pronoun "they" for him or her, or whatever. But I thought that "they" is a plural. It is said that he (they?) originally moved to the US in 1981 with his (their?) parents to escape Russian antisemitism. He (they?) returned in 1991 when communism collapsed, but left again in 2013 to return to the US to escape anti-LGBT-ism. The author was unable to interview Grigori Perelman, who has withdrawn from the world, but he (they?) did interview many of the people who knew him. The author himself doubts whether Perelman would read this biography of his life, but if so, I wonder if he would agree with many of the things that are to be found in the book.
    We are told about the math clubs in the schools of Russia. They are like sports clubs. But rather than playing football or whatever, the children are given a list of logical, or arithmetical puzzles, and the winner is whoever solves the puzzles correctly in the least possible time. The goal is to take part in the formal competition associated with the Olympics of Mathematics, or International Mathematical Olympiad. We are told that, as with any competitive sporting endeavor, success only comes through years of training. Grigori Perelman's trainer during his school years was Sergey Rukshin, a mathematician who has guided the careers of many other famous mathematicians as well. All of this was new to me. There was certainly no mathematics club at the simple school I attended all those years ago. And anyway, I wasn't interested in clubs.
    Apparently this whole idea of having an Olympics of Mathematics, mathematics clubs, and all of that originated with the great Russian mathematician Andrey Kolmogorov. According to the book, Kolmogorov was homosexual, and his lifelong partner was Pavel Alexandrov. But according to the Wikipedia, Kolmogorov was married to Anna Dmitrievna Egorova, a woman, so maybe this story about Kolmogorov was just wishful thinking on the part of the author. In any case Rukshin told the young Perelman, who had been practicing the violin, that he should put a stop to that and instead devote all of his time to solving these mathematical puzzles. Music, books, everything else were a waste of time. Also he was told not to waste time with girls, not to kiss them. And so as the years went by, Perelman became the greatest mathematical puzzle solver, not only in Saint Petersburg, but in all of Russia. The Olympics of Mathematics in 1982 was held in Budapest. Before the competition, the Russian National Team withdrew to a training camp which followed the principles which had been laid down by Kolmogorov. This involved runs, swims in cold Russian lakes... It was all boys. Perelman, whose ambition and pride were enormous, devoted himself to all of these exercises and in the end he, along with two others, obtained a perfect score at the Olympics, receiving a gold medal. Reading all of this makes me realize why there are so many great Russian and Eastern European mathematicians in the world these days.
    The author tells us much about the antisemitism of the Soviet Union. Jewish people were refused entry into universities. But then he tells us that unlike the Nazis of Hitler's Germany, the idea of Jewishness was not clearly defined. A person was declared to be Jewish if he or she had a "Jewish sounding" last name. Apparently the name Perelman does sound Jewish, at least in the ears of the Russian authorities of those days, and therefore Perelman's application would have been blocked. He would have been sent to some sort of an obscure technical college. However, another rule was that a winner of a gold medal at the Olympics of Mathematics was entitled to be admitted to any university he wanted. Thus Perelman attended the School of Mathematics and Mechanics at Leningrad State University.
    There he experienced the highest levels of advancement imaginable. His supervisors included Aleksandr Aleksandrov and Yuri Burago, working on the theory of Alexandrov spaces which, fortuitously, became useful in his work on the Poincaré Conjecture. He was able to prove a number of important theorems and so he was invited to the United States where he gave various lectures and had a few temporary appointments. He was offered a position as assistant professor at Princeton but he insisted on having instant tenure, which was refused. And so he returned to Saint Petersburg, nominally to a position at his old university, isolated, living off the savings he had made in America while the chaos and economic catastrophe of the Boris Jelzin years in Russia passed over him, staying in his mother's apartment and solving the great problem.
    The solution was based on a method developed by Richard Hamilton twenty years before. But Hamilton had gotten stuck in the details, unable to proceed. It was these technical details which Perelman was able to overcome. Therefore one could say that Perelman had filled in the gaps of Hamilton's proof of the Poincaré Conjecture and the more general Thurston Geometrization Conjecture. He posted his papers on the internet for everybody to see, not in a commercial, peer reviewed mathematical journal. But they were difficult to follow. Even the people who were expert in all things associated with Hamilton's work took months, if not years, to eventually acknowledge that the proofs were valid. They wrote books trying to give a complete, self-contained, connected proof. In particular one such book was written by two Chinese mathematicians and it was hailed in China as being itself a large part of the final proof. It was asserted that the proof was 50% due to Hamilton, 25% due to Perelman, and 30% due to those two Chinese authors. (The author of that statement seems to have been unable to understand simple arithmetic.) Of course the two Chinese professed their innocence of all such nonsense, declaring that indeed Hamilton and Perelman were the exclusive provers of the theorem.
    Perelman wanted nothing to do with all this squabbling. He rejected all offers of professorships at American universities. He rejected the million dollar Millennium Prize money which had been put up by Landon T. Clay, an American oligarch, hoping thus to associate his name in history with the achievements of others. And so Perelman withdrew from the world, living with his mother in Saint Petersburg, saying that he is no longer interested in mathematics and refusing all requests for interviews. Perhaps it would have been better if the Poincaré Conjecture were not so well known, not associated with a million American dollars. Perelman would have had the satisfaction of having solved it; he would have enjoyed the respect of the few other mathematicians who were interested in such things; and he would have become a professor at a leading university, teaching courses, encouraging students in the manner of his early problem solving, leading a fulfilled life. But as things stood, if he had accepted a professorship then he would have been either (i) the person who had done it all just for the million dollars, or else (ii) the person who stupidly threw away a million dollars.
    After all, is the Poincaré Conjecture really the greatest thing in mathematics which has ever been done, as Masha Gessen, the author of this book, suggests? What is this idea of a 3-dimensional manifold? It starts with our usual vision of 3-dimensional physical space, then we imagine the space might curve about in some way, connecting with itself, producing all sorts of possible imaginary spaces in the eye of the mathematician We go on to other dimensions, 4, 5, and so on, imagining them using other complicated mathematical thoughts. Of course theoretical physicists are always keen to incorporate the latest mathematical results into their subject, producing reams of abstruse publications. Who knows what lasting value they have?
    Without detracting from the greatness of what Grigori Perelman has accomplished, it seems to me that Andrew Wiles, who finally completed a proof of Fermat's Last Theorem, must be just as great. After all, while the 3-dimensional topology of the Poincaré Conjecture languished in an obscure corner of mathematics for a hundred years, Fermat's Last Theorem was the focus of many of the greatest mathematicians for more than 400 years. Large parts of modern abstract algebra were developed in order to try to prove the theorem. And any child can understand Fermat's Last Theorem. It is a simple statement about everyday arithmetic, almost impossibly difficult to prove.
    Both of these theorems were not proved by one person. They are the culmination of many theorems and programs of research, carried on by generations of mathematicians. Perelman and Wiles were the last links in a long chain of steps which finally completed the respective proofs.
    But how pleasant it would be to live in another world where it would be possible to prove both of these immensely difficult theorems using simple, elegant arguments which could be grasped at once by the non-specialist and written down in a few pages of clearly expressed mathematics.

The Young H.G. Wells, by Claire Tomalin

    The author thinks that the Old H.G. Wells is not such a good subject for a biography as is the Young version. Wells wrote many things, perhaps in his later years not so interesting for the modern reader. Of course when I was young, even in school, I read the science fiction stories: War of the Worlds, Time Machine, Invisible Man, Island of Dr. Moreau. Then years later, maybe not so many years ago: The Sleeper Awakes, and Kipps.
    The story of Kipps had much to do with Wells' young years. He was forced to do an apprenticeship in a haberdashery, standing about, serving customers for 10 or more hours each day, earning almost nothing. Indeed, when I go into the shops in town I always feel sorry for the salespeople who are tied down with such meaningless jobs. Kipps is liberated by an unexpected inheritance of £25,000. (Wells was liberated only very gradually and with difficulty through much work, studying and writing.) Given that inflation has reduced the value of English money by a factor of 100 - which the internet inflation calculators tell us - then that would be the equivalent of £2,500,000 in today's deflated money. In the story, Kipps uses something like a tenth of his fortune to have a huge house built for him on the south coast of England with many bedrooms, kitchens and all sorts of luxuries. This seemed to me to be unrealistic since £250,000 of today's money would only suffice for a modest cottage these days. Yet reading of Wells' actual experience we see that he had Spade House, an opulent mansion, built for a mere £2,000 in 1901. Since the cost of building a house consists mainly of the wages of the construction workers, we see that laborers were paid very poorly relative to their position today.
    Wells spent freely, always remaining just above the level of bankruptcy despite earning well over one or two thousand pounds each year. After finishing the book, thinking to read something more from Wells, I downloaded Anticipations from This was written in the first years of the 1900s, and Wells tries to imagine, to anticipate, what life would be like in the year 2000. I only made it through the first few chapters, but his discussion of economics was interesting. He tells us that the idea of shareholding only developed in the 18th century. Prior to that, wealth was either kept in gold or silver, or else in actual physical property: land, buildings, livestock... Things that you actually owned: real estate. Your wealth involved responsibility, keeping things in repair, defending it from whatever might diminish it. But the modern share holder simply owns shares, mutual funds, held in some bank, or some vague internet thing. It is held without responsibility, eventually perhaps being sold for some unearned profit.
    Wells foresaw what this irresponsible share holder class would come to. And this is part of what The Sleeper Awakes is about. A member of the share holder class has fallen into a coma; he sleeps for perhaps 200 years or more and then awakes to find that his share holdings, earning compound interest and thus growing exponentially, have grown to such an extent that he now owns the entire world. (Wells did not foresee the modern phenomenon of inflation which exponentially reduces the value of money over time. These days money is based on debt rather than on some immutable physical substance such as gold. This leads to a positive feedback: increasing debt => increasing money supply => increasing inflation => increasing debt.)
    We are told what life is like in this future world. Power is obtained by windmills turning electrical generators. I remember when reading this all those years ago thinking that such an idea would be nonsense since the wind does not blow consistently. And yet now we know, through the sublime insight of the German Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, that it is not a problem! Happily all electrical energy is stored in the electrical grid.
    Transportation in the world where the sleeper awakes takes place by means of moving bands, as in the big airports these days where you would otherwise have to walk a kilometer or two to get to Gate 57a, or whatever. Wells imagined such bands next to each other, going progressively faster, so that by stepping from one band to the next fastest and then to a still faster one you would be transported very quickly by just standing on the band. This sounds a bit far-fetched and impractical, typical of the green ideology of today.
    We are told that Wells considered his book Tono-Bungay to be his masterpiece. So I also downloaded that one and started to read it. It is again very much a kind of autobiography in fiction. It goes on and on about how evil the degenerate aristocracy and the share holding class of England is. I soon gave up. We are told that it also dwells in fiction on his various sexual exploits. Wells considered that marriage was a discredited, outdated institution that would be done away with in the future to be replaced with free men and women, enjoying unrestrained sexual relations. In reality he remained celibate before marrying his cousin, Isabel Mary Wells at the age of about 25. Apparently the wedding night was a catastrophe. Soon the marriage was settled in divorce. He then married Amy Catherine Robbins, who he decided to call "Jane", for some reason. They certainly did not wait for the wedding night. But also they agreed to have an "open" relationship. We do not read that "Jane" had many lovers wandering about the house, satisfying her occasional sexual urges. In fact all of this is really very unfair. The gradually aging man in such a relationship, especially if he is famous and is earning huge amounts of money, finds himself in the pleasant position of having flocks of increasingly young, active, intelligent, nubile women throwing themselves at him. And he takes them, one after the other. On the other hand, the gradually aging woman, married to the famous, wealthy man, is seldom thought to be attractive by all the increasingly younger men who are instead looking for attractive young women. Does the old man who has exploited all of these opportunities arrive at a state of happy contentment? In any case "Jane" died in 1927 at the age of only 55.
    When I first arrived here in Germany all those years ago there was a member of the Faculty who I didn't get to know, but whose name I remembered. He soon left to go elsewhere. But then more recently there was a film on television, a documentary made by a young man, the son of that mathematician. It was about his mother who had developed an advanced form of dementia although she was not so old, and the film accompanied the process of her loss of mind and her dying. We were told that she had agreed to have an "open" marriage and that the husband had had many other women. It was not said that this was the cause of her fate; but surely it was. Worries, loneliness, sleeplessness will grind a person down. I have read that one of the main functions of sleep is to clear the brain of the waste products which accumulate in the fluids around the cells during the waking day. If you don't sleep enough then all of this can build up, causing dementia. A sad fate.
    In contrast, what can be better than to sleep long and peacefully beside a loving spouse through many happy years of marriage?

The First Four Minutes, by Roger Bannister

    The first four minute mile was run by the author in 1954. It was said by many that such a thing was impossible. The mile record had improved from the start of organized amateur athletics in the middle of the 19th century in England, 4:30, 4:20, 4:15... slowly approaching four minutes before Bannister finally smashed the four minute barrier. But could it be that professional runners in the 18th and 19th centuries had already run a 4 minute mile? An interesting question. Certainly they were also very fast. Roger Bannister wrote this book just a year or two after accomplishing his great feat, but then in old age he added in a postscript to the book, telling us about subsequent events. He tells us that more than 2000 people have now run the mile in less than four minutes. It has become a banality; merely a first step for a serious runner on his way to gradually trying to achieve world class.
    Roger Bannister was proud of being the first, but I am skeptical of Bannister's dismissal of the records run by professional runners of the past. After all, those runs were the subject of serious, heavy betting. Large sums were bet for and against the result. And so the course would have been very precisely measured to be exactly one mile, beyond dispute. And the watches timing the run would have been very accurate. After all, the chronometers of those days used for ships navigation were extremely robust and accurate. The sporting magazines of the time tell us of the results, and one of them was a bet on the four minute mile - which was won.
    During the 19th century, in the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge (Bannister was a medical student at Oxford), the wealthy young aristocrats began organizing running competitions amongst themselves. In order to exclude undesirable lower class elements they specified that these competitions were only open to amateurs. And this unfair, elitist idea became enshrined in the code of the modern Olympics of 1896. Bannister tells us that he only had a half hour, or perhaps an hour in the evening for training after a full day on his feet of hospital work. Judging from the narrative in the movie Chariots of Fire, in the 1920s even professional coaches were looked down upon and it was considered to be unsporting to employ them. But Bannister is not ashamed to tell us about the professional coaches he used; so by the 1950s such things were allowed.
    Bannister's rival was the Australian John Landy who, only weeks after Bannister's effort, lowered the record. By 1958 the great Herb Elliot - a hero of my youth - set the world record at 3:54.5. Thankfully now this amateur hypocrisy has long ago been done away with. The current record stands at an incredible 3:43.13, run by Hicham El Guerrouj. This record was set in 1999, twenty four years ago. Nobody looks like running as fast as this for many years to come. It is so impressive as to leave the results of those past heroes far in its wake. But on the other hand we must remember that Herb Elliot was running on a traditional "ash" track. There was none of the bounciness of these modern synthetic tracks. And his shoes were made of thin leather with spikes, not the modern elastic shoes which act like springs, giving an extra bounce at every stride. And then there is the question of drugs which were not available back in the 1950s. I would like to believe that champion middle distance runners of today are free of such things... In any case it is often said that alone the difference between an ash track and a modern track is about a second per lap, or 4 seconds of advantage over the mile.
    It is no longer usual to have competitions over the mile. As far as I can see, only the United States continues to use these old scales of measurement; everybody else uses the metric system. The mile was supposed to be the distance covered by a roman legion after taking a thousand strides. Then there is the yard, which is three feet. For some reason, tradition seems to have settled on the number 220 yards. Doubling this gives 440 yards - a quarter mile. On the other hand, the meter was defined to be one ten millionth of the distance from the equator of the earth to the north pole, but it has since been redefined in terms of some sort of atomic frequency, combined with the speed of light. We have the 100, the 200, the 400 and the 800 meter runs as part of the Olympics. One would think it natural continue with the 1600 meter run which would be very near the mile and be exactly four laps of the track, but for some obscure reason they settled on 1500 meters, necessitating a start somewhere around the first curve. Then 5000, and 10,000. But to be honest, whereas many years ago I followed these things - the Olympics on television - with great enthusiasm, now I can't be bothered. Apart from the electrifying performances of Usain Bolt, life has other things to offer.
    I was astonished to see the photo which was taken of Roger Bannister together with John Landy, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the "first" four minute mile. They can each be hardly more than 75 years old here. Landy seems rather old for his age, but look at Bannister! What has happened to him? He tells us in the Afterword to the book about all the very responsible positions he has had in life. Medical professor. Dean of Oxford colleges. Advisor to the British government. Landy had become Mayor of Melbourne. Thus the moral of the story seems to be that becoming an important figure is not compatible with the good life.

What We Fear Most, by Dr. Ben Cave

    This is about madness. The author is a forensic psychologist, dealing with the criminally insane; those put into closed psychiatric hospitals rather than prison. He tells us that after many years he has gotten a new position, and he is clearing out his old office, looking at the cases he has dealt with in all that time. And so the book describes various levels of mental disturbance and insanity by describing in detail some of these cases. Some were indeed fearful. Forensic psychology is not a profession for the weak of heart. But for me, who has practically nothing to do with it, I can think of other things which seem to me to be much more fearful, For example the situation of a man in Ukraine being dragged off the street and immediately thrown into the senseless slaughter. Or the possibility that it will suddenly lead to nuclear war.
    We are told how wonderful it is that there are psychoactive drugs which often help these people. Given the very extreme cases the author describes, we appreciate the role they play. But then when we are told of the various mass shootings in the United States, it often comes out that the shooter had been taking prescribed psychoactive drugs which in some way had caused his behavior. It is easy to say that society itself is mad, and so it is no wonder that some people act out the madness in disturbing ways. But in the end, despite having read this book, I realize that I don't really want to think about such things.

Lessons, by Ian McEwan

    Ian McEwan was born in 1948. This must have been the most ideal, perfect time to have been born. Our generation has experienced the growing prosperity of the last 75 years. Life has been easy. And so McEwan celebrates this life with a novel about an imagined life with all of its ups and downs. The protagonist is Roland Baines, also born in 1948. And as with McEwan, Roland Baines' father was in the military, looking after the various areas of British imperialism in the world so that, as with the real life McEwan, he spent his early years in North Africa. He is then sent to boarding school in England.
    The little 11 year old Roland has a strange experience at school. He is enrolled in piano lessons, and his teacher, the seemingly straight-laced 25 year old Miss Miriam Cornell suddenly kisses him on the lips and places her hand inside his shorts, touching him. Roland is confused and he is glad to be assigned a different piano teacher with whom he makes great progress. He avoids Miss Cornell, quickly tuning away if he happens to see her in the distance. But in the evenings, in their dormitory, while the other boys in the boarding school discuss their sexual fantasies, Roland thinks of Miss Cornell, dreaming of her, imagining what it would be like. And so when he is 14 he gets on his bicycle and rides a few miles to the village where Miss Cornell lives in a small house. It is as if she has also been waiting these years for him to finally come. She first instructs him to clear things in the garden. To do a few chores about the house. She is in control. Guiding Roland from step to step. She puts a piece for four hands onto the piano and they play it together. Roland is at first nervous, making one or two mistakes while sight-reading; then they play it together again and it floats forth in beautiful harmony. Miss Cornell guides Roland upstairs to her bedroom and then through the full experience of sexual intercourse. He is completely overwhelmed. He keeps coming back. Miss Cornell is once again assigned Roland as her pupil and they spend many days together, playing music and sex. Gradually as time goes by Roland reaches his 16th birthday; he cannot be bothered with his other school work and so, at the end of the year, he fails his exams.
    Thus he leaves school without graduating. He works at odd jobs, house construction, whatever. His life develops. It is a long book with many different characters, women he marries and those he dosen't marry. Various lessons of life. He ages. His profession is to play sentimental "old time favorites" in the evenings on the piano of a lounge in a London hotel. Soft, meaningless background music. A dead end job. He achieves nothing in life; perhaps he can no longer be satisfied with anything after all his emotions as a 14 year old boy.
    He has now become 60 years old or so. A policeman tells him that there have been rumors of a female music teacher who sexually assaulted a small boy. He seeks out Miriam Cornell who he finds living in a large, elegant London mansion, and he pretends to be someone who wants to take lessons from her. She is still an elegant woman. Roland, who is hardly elegant, confronts her with his wasted life. He threatens to report her to the police, and she tells him an elaborate story about her feelings all those years ago. The guilt and so forth. It is an empty threat. He has no intention of going to the police.
    In the final parts of the book Ian McEwan tells us through Roland, his apparent alter-ego, about his views on politics and everything else which fill the pages of the present-day Guardian newspaper. In fact we learn that McEwan even writes articles for the Guardian. Thus Roland's son has become a major scientist for the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research, or whatever it is called, writing computer programs to show that the world is burning up.
Remark: The weather here is cold and wet despite the Guardian claiming that the world is hotter than it has ever been before. Or at least the last 100,000 years, or a million, or whatever.
Then Roland wears his medical mask everywhere, telling his family that they cannot visit him. He is angry about Boris Johnson for not locking everybody down much earlier and longer than was the case. He is especially angry about the people who have not taken their mRNA injections. They should be put into prison, or at least into enclosed camps where the authorities can concentrate on teaching them the proper respect for authority. He cannot get over the fact that the British people voted for Brexit. And on and on. Still, I enjoyed the book.
    In a few places Roland compares his vacuous life to that of Marlow, the figure in Joseph Conrad's Youth. And so I read that, downloading it from It is a short novella, or longish short story. Similar to William Golding's Fire Down Below. Good books to read.

Five Tales, by John Galsworthy

    Going back to older books. John Galsworthy published this one in 1918. I started reading his famous Forsyte Saga but got bogged down in the maze of characters which were introduced right at the beginning and I was turned off by their unpleasant characteristics. But these short stories were well worth reading. In contrast with a lot of the stuff I have been reading lately, Galsworthy writes of higher moral principles. People finding themselves in one dilemma or another and we wonder what should have been done.
    For example The Juryman has a comfortable, complacent, if not cynical man being called to sit on a jury, much against his wishes. It is the middle of the Great War. An unfortunate little man who has been conscripted has tried to commit suicide. He is charged with treason, and so on. If he had killed himself then England would have lost a soldier which could have then more patriotically died under German fire. The other jurors, who have themselves avoided becoming soldiers, express their outrage at the cowardly behavior of the accused. But the protagonist of the story is repelled by these false emotions and refuses to vote for guilty. Thus the accused is pronounced not guilty and is returned to his regiment, rather than being thrown into jail. Perhaps not the best outcome.
    The First and Last is about a successful, established lawyer whose loose living brother is in trouble. He tries his best to help him, putting himself in jeopardy, advising the brother to flee. All to no avail. The Apple Tree is about a young man on a walking tour with a friend from university. He injures his leg and so stays in a farm while the friend returns to his studies. He falls in love with the farmer's daughter, an innocent child of nature who is unfamiliar with everything in the world of the young man. He says that he will take her into his world and they will be married. When his leg is recovered he travels to the nearby town to buy her fashionable clothes in order for her to fit in with her future life, promising to return in the evening. What should he buy? Everything seems wrong. Suddenly he meets an old friend who is holidaying nearby. The friend's sister and others are there as well. They insist that he come swimming with them in the afternoon. Everything is so friendly, so natural. The sister is beautiful. They are part of his life, his natural circle of friends. He stays the night in a hotel. They have a wonderful time the next day as well. The story then jumps years into the future. He has a beautiful family; his wife is that sister and they have a number of children. On a drive in the countryside they stop for a picnic and he recognizes the farm where he had stayed. He asks about the people there and he is told about the young maiden, such a lovely, wonderful girl, who had died of a broken heart.

Romance, by Joseph Conrad and F. M. Hueffer

        Hueffer was the son of Francis Hueffer, the German-born chief music critic of the Times newspaper. The book was first published in 1903, before the first World War. Hueffer changed his surname in 1919, becoming Ford Madox Ford and thus apparently less Germanic. It is said that Conrad and Hueffer were good friends for many years.
    A young Englishman, John Kemp, suddenly finds himself aboard a ship bound for Jamaica, filled with various shady characters. Although Kemp is impoverished, his uncle is an earl and he seems to have various aristocratic Spanish relations, all resulting in connections with wealthy plantation owners in Jamaica and Cuba. It is a swashbuckling story, perhaps reminiscent of Robert Lewis Stevenson. Kemp falls totally in love with Seraphina, a Spanish maiden, a cousin, the most wonderful, perfect person in the world who is also the fabulously rich heiress to the greatest fortune of Cuba. They escape from pirates, prison and lots of other things in an unlikely sequence of implausible adventures to finally live happily ever after in the last few sentences of the book. I read on, curious to find out how things develop from one scene to the next, but we really can't compare this with Conrad's more famous volumes: Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, and all that. If we are to assume that this is basically a book by Joseph Conrad then it would seem that Ford Madox Ford's influence disrupted his style. On the other hand if this was basically a book by Ford Madox Ford then Conrad would have done better to have just left him to it.

Unfinished Victory, by Arthur Bryant

        The author was an English historian. According to the Wikipedia he was the favorite historian of three prime ministers: Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, and Harold Wilson. The present book was published in 1940, describing the catastrophic aftermath of the First World War and how it led to the Second World War. The responsibility lay chiefly with France, and in particular with the brutally rigid prime minister, Georges Clemenceau, while the other powers of the Entente stood by and let it happen. After publishing the book, as the hysteria of the second war led into an even greater catastrophe, the author, being an advisor in the corridors of power, found his book to be an embarrassment, and so he tried to suppress it, buying up as many copies as possible, destroying them. It was no longer a popular idea to try and understand the enemy.
    How easy it is to make generalizations: Germans mindlessly obey orders; Russians are drunken brutes; Ukrainians are Nazis; Americans are gun-loving killers. If we don't know anything else then we might accept such ideas, especially if the newspapers and television have been bought up by powerful financial figures and turned into a virtual monopoly, broadcasting such ideas. Indeed, the author, Arthur Bryant has been accused by some of being an anti-Semite, a Nazi. Such people have either not read the book or else they distort the truth for whatever reasons they have. There is a YouTube video of an interview with the author as an old man.
    The book describes the situation in Germany during the First World War. Owing to the blockade of the North Sea by the British, large sections of the German population began starving, living in destitution, there was abject poverty everywhere. The war ended when sailors of the German navy refused to sail out in a hopeless, last ditch, suicidal mission to finally break the blockade. Terms were agreed for the surrender on the basis of a fair plan put forward by President Wilson of the United States. But as soon as the Germans, Austrians and Hungarians gave up their arms, these terms were thrown aside and crushing, very unfair terms were imposed. It was specified that Germany must transfer impossible amounts of money to the victors. This led to the inflation, destroying most peoples lives. The author describes how as a young man he had traveled to Germany, living like a prince in great luxury while only spending a pound or two of English money. Similarly people in Germany with relatives or friends in England or America who sent them small amounts of money could buy up huge amounts of value, becoming suddenly rich out of the suffering of others. This led to great resentments. And still, even ten, fifteen years after the end of the war, into the Great Depression, the financial interests in France, England and America kept insisting on huge reparation payments from Germany. Is it any wonder that this led to the catastrophe of the Second World War?

Wind in the Fire, by Bobbi Gibb

        Bobbi (Roberta) Gibb was the first woman to run in the Boston marathon. In fact she was the first woman to run in any marathon. The whole idea of a marathon run originated when the first modern Olympics were organized in 1896. The ancient Olympics - which didn't allow women - had no marathon. It continued in an uninterrupted sequence every four years from 776 BC to 261 AD when the 260th Olympiad was held, marking the last of the continuously recorded list of victors. Wars were suspended to allow the Olympics to go on, plagues were ignored; the Olympics were more important than such things. What a contrast with modern times.
    The author was born in 1942 and thus she was 23 when she first ran the marathon in 1966. As I remember 1966, just starting the first year of university, I cannot imagine the restrictions on women which Bobbi Gibb describes. The hall of residence at the Australian National University where I stayed consisted of two large buildings containing identical rooms for students. One of the buildings was for women and the other for men. We all had our meals together in the central hall. There were certainly no restrictions on women coming into the men's building or men coming into the woman's building at any time of the day or night. People just come and went as they pleased. It is true that few women were taking the courses I was taking: mathematics, physics, and in the first year, geology. But there was no suggestion that they would not be welcome.
    What sports there were: tennis, running around the sports ground, were done as much by women students as men. But for formal sports competitions (which were nonexistent at the ANU) there was the division between men's and women's competitions. After all, most sport involves some sort of test of strength, and as a general rule men have more strength than women. Therefore it would be unfair for men to compete in women's sport. And if a woman were to feel unfairly handled if she were to lose to a man in a woman's competition, I am sure many men would equally feel unfairly handled if they were to lose to a woman in a men's competition.
    Bobbi Gibb tells us that her father was a professor of chemistry at Tufts University in Boston. Her mother was a frustrated housewife. The father laid down the rules and the mother and daughter suffered. The mother drank wine to drown her sorrows, together with pills, psychopharmica, prescribed by the doctor. Bobbi took to sleeping outside in her sleeping bag, covering herself with a camping sheet if it rained or snowed. She ran with the local dogs through the woods. To escape the tensions at home she moved in with a more open-minded family. In 1964 she stood on the sidelines and watched the runners of the Boston Marathon pass by, and she resolved to enter and run herself.
    She had studied at Tufts: mathematics and physics, philosophy, but for some reason she had not taken a degree. Instead she was studying art at an institute in Boston. She describes all the restrictions she feels that she suffered as a woman. When I compare this with the women students I knew in those days, I simply have to wonder what sort of a world Boston must have been like.
    In any case she tells us that in the summer of 1964 her parents left for an extended holiday, leaving her in charge of the house and their VW bus which the father had fixed up for camping. Bobbi decided to take the bus and drive across the country to California, and she also bought a puppy dog to accompany her. This was a great act of rebellion since the bus was her father's special project and also he was strictly against dogs, saying he was allergic to them.
    There follows long passages describing her trip, sleeping rough, taking long runs through beautiful landscapes. She tells us of her love for nature, for the world. And when running she is meditating about the world. Half of the text is in italics, representing her inner thoughts when running. What is God? Is he - or it - the creator of everything? But then what created God? She sees that life creates itself and so she realizes that the whole of everything is self-creating. Everything is love and beauty. She thinks about the physics she has learned at Tufts and much of her philosophy revolves around such ideas. In the middle of all this the following sentence appears:
    Existence creates space and time within it, or rather space and time are just the way we order events, so the events define the distances and times, which we think we are measuring.
    Well, indeed, this sentence can be thought of as being a question in pure mathematics. She would have done well to have thought further about how to formulate an appropriate mathematical theory to make this idea precise rather than submerging it in loads of vague philosophical speculations.
     She tells us about her boyfriends. First there is Will who went running with her and they had lots of talks together about philosophy and all that when she was studying at Tufts. But he had joined the Navy two years ago and was gone. Then there was John who was studying medicine. She loved John and he loved her. But when she had proposed to set off on her own to California in the VW bus he tried to stop her, saying it was dangerous for a woman alone. Maybe he was right. But Bobbi detected something of her father in this and so was angry with him. Halfway to California the VW bus began making unpleasant noises. Pulling into a VW dealer, she was told her that the engine was broken, it had to be replaced with an new engine. So she sat in an armchair for a couple of hours, giving us pages of further italic philosophical musings, and then the car was finished. The whole operation cost $135.
    Oh for those good old days of 1964! Just put in a new motor and drive off into the sunset. No worries. She had earned $400 being a "den mother" at a summer camp for children the month before, earning enough money for her drive across America. That was three times the cost of a new VW motor together with the labor of installing it. What a contrast with the world of 2023! A new motor for a VW transporter would cost well over $10,000, and it would take a week to put it in, whereas being a "den mother" for a month these days would hardly earn much more than $400.
    She had lost a third of her funds for the trip, but despite that, in San Francisco, after camping out on the beach with a bunch of hippies, she decided to splurge and check in to the most expensive hotel in town and eat the most expensive dinner in their restaurant. Her funds were reduced almost to zero. She put an advertisement in the paper asking for people who would share the expenses of driving back to Boston. A group of (male) students answered, and they set off, apparently intending to drive nonstop. When she was sleeping in the middle of the night and one of the students was driving, the car suddenly left the road and tumbled over. A write off. Nobody was really hurt. They spent the night in a motel room together, Bobbi on the bed and the students on the floor, and then she bought a train ticket and returned to Boston. When the father learned about all of this he was hysterical, accusing her of being a prostitute, saying she was no longer his daughter. I suppose he was also upset about the loss of his car. She was confined in the house as punishment (a 21 year old!) but John secretly came in and they became intimate in the middle of the night by the fireplace. The father suddenly stormed in in his pajamas. Shouting, screaming. She was shut up in the bedroom as punishment. He rang up John's father, a pastor of the church, who in turn shouted and screamed at John, telling him that if he ever saw Bobbi again he would no longer be allowed to study and his life would be ruined. And so John broke off all contact.
    Then came Brandon. A suave student at Harvard. Rich parents with an opulent Manhattan residence. Stockbrokers. Finance. Money. She was taken to parties, became friends with the girlfriends who wanted to marry into all this money. She even moved in with them in a large house in Boston. But Brandon's rich father, uncles, the rest of them, smelled of the smoke, the alcohol, the rich foods, the sleepless nights. Bobbi wished that she was away, alone in the woods with her sleeping bag, under the stars.
    And then on Christmas Eve the telephone rang; was it John, finally coming back? No. It was Will, on leave from the Navy base in San Diego. He came over, they talked through the night, they agreed to marry. And so she moved to California, now a married woman, training for the Boston Marathon. She tells us that back in Massachusetts she had run 40 miles a day through woods, following the course of a cross country rally for horses and riders. And in California she runs long distances, well beyond a marathon distance. Her new husband, Will, seems strangely distant. He is more friendly with his shipmates, leaving Bobbi alone in their small house. But she has made a friend in California, a woman who has inherited all the riches of a great beer empire, having an extensive ranch with horses and all that. They stay together in the luxury of her house into the night, Bobbi explaining the various points of her philosophy of life and the world.
    The time comes for the Boston Marathon of 1966. She writes to the organizers, asking for an application form but instead receives a letter telling her that women are not physically capable of running such distances. The longest distance allowed for women's competitions according the Amateur Athletic Association of America was 1 1/2 miles. But she decides to run anyway. Suddenly Will, who, unusually, is home, is angry, refusing to have anything to do with it. He refuses to drive her to the bus station in San Diego. Her rich, esoteric friend, the beer heiress, does not suggest buying her an airline ticket to Boston. She takes a taxi to the bus terminal and with the last of her money buys a Greyhound Bus ticket to Boston. And so she sits in the bus nonstop for 3 days, day and night, arriving in Boston the night before the big race, exhausted, and she calls her parents.
    Why is she not with her husband? What is she doing here? They decide not to explode with anger. They just ignore it, giving her a huge dinner and putting her to bed. The next morning she asks them to drive her to the start of the Boston Marathon. Anger, shouting. The father storms out, slamming the door, saying that he is going to the regatta with the mother. Bobbi pleads with her mother, saying that she will be setting a signal for women, something of lasting value. Eventually her mother does agree to drive her to the start, but she quickly drives back to Boston to join her husband at the regatta.
    Bobbi hides in bushes, wearing a sweatshirt with hood to hide her long hair. The race starts and she joins in. She feels good despite the three days sitting in the bus and the heavy meal the night before. Some of the runners behind begin to ask, "Is that a girl?" The runners next to her tell her how wonderful it is that she is running. She should take off the heavy sweatshirt and run freely. She does and everybody begins to say that a girl is running. The local radio picks it up and her progress is breathlessly followed. Women along the road cheer, weep. A girl is running the Boston Marathon! The runners around her say that this is a pace of under three hours. She is feeling good. Everybody is cheering. She reaches Heartbreak Hill, but then she hits the "brick wall". She must go on, staggering on for the sake of all women, and finally she finishes in 3 hours and 20 minutes. Ahead of 2/3s of the other runners. The governor of Massachusetts congratulates her. Everybody is happy. She is driven back to her parents house and finds the street full of cars, people everywhere, reporters clamoring for photos, interviews. Her parents are back at home, not at their stupid regatta. They pretend that everything is wonderful, that they are proud of their daughter. What nonsense. What hypocrisy. And what an extraordinary book this is.
    We read that Bobbi Gibb has become a person of historic importance for the Boston Marathon and for women's liberation. She is an artist, a scientist, a philosopher. No longer married to the simple-minded Will. Did she marry John? She gives us a few hints, but perhaps not. She is famous. But could it be that if had she not become famous then she might have had the peace of mind to think more deeply about her thoughts on physics and develop ideas of more lasting value?

Never Out of Season, by Rob Dunn

        The book starts off by telling us that our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate hundreds of different kinds of foods. Different things in the winter and the summer, during a rainy patch or a drought, there was always something to be found. They simply ate what nature happened to be producing. I remember reading that the native peoples of Australia or the San of Southwest Africa only needed to "work" for an hour or two each day in order to gather enough nourishment to satisfy their needs. In contrast with this, we modern people rely on very few plants: rice, wheat, potatoes, maize, and so on. Huge fields are planted in mono-culture, and this is necessary in order to feed all the millions and billions of people in the world. But doing so we are open to sudden crop failure: insects, bacteria, viruses, fungi. The author tells us that we live precariously. As in the potato famine in Ireland in 1845, suddenly from one day to the next a whole crop can fail. Indeed, the potato blight which was the cause of that famine still exists and it remains a problem for modern agriculture.
    We are told that almost all bananas which we have today are essentially identical with one another. They are all produced by a huge number of clones of a single plant and so they are practically genetically identical with one another. Every banana you have ever eaten is from the same plant. Surely this is a very fragile, hardly sustainable situation.
    Particularly interesting is the example of rubber trees. In the 1930s, Henry Ford established a huge plantation in South America in order to make rubber tires for his cars. But it failed. He tried again and his second project also failed. He didn't take into account the complicated ecology of rubber trees. Most raw rubber came from Southeast Asia, and that was cut off by the Japanese in World War II. A substitute of artificial rubber was invented, but it is inferior to natural rubber. In particular, even today, airplane tires must be made of natural rubber since artificial rubber would fall apart during the extreme conditions of landing. But also the sidewalls of radial tires for cars need natural rubber. Therefore if you were to go out now and kick the tires on your car, you will be kicking natural rubber which has dripped slowly from a rubber tree, probably from somewhere in Southeast Asia.
    Why does rubber come from Asia rather than from South America where the rubber tree originated? The answer is that the natural enemies of the rubber tree, the fungi, the caterpillars and all that, do not exist in Asia. They remain in South America so the trees can grow easily in Asia, free of these pests. Yet what will we do when they suddenly begin to appear in the vast rubber plantations of Asia? Or perhaps native Asian insects, fungi, or whatever will adopt and attack the trees. The same situation applies to cacao, which is mainly produced in West Africa, away from its origin in South America. And coffee is mainly produced in countries which are far away from where the coffee tree originated in Ethiopia and Yemen.
    The book describes how over the millennia farmers have bred crops, crossed them with strains which are resistant to one thing and another. But this is dependent on the existence of a large diversity of wild strains. And so it is important to maintain large areas of undisturbed natural landscapes. It would be ideal if half the land of the Earth was left undisturbed, leaving the other half left for human activities. Of course this will never happen. And so countless numbers of important plants will become extinct. People only think about the animals. Those horrible, nasty polar bears. The pandas. They are made to look like cuddly little furry babies on television. When imagining scenes of ancient dinosaurs we look at the animals, the vegetation providing just a basic greenish background. But it is not these animals that are really important. It is the plants and the unimaginably complicated relationships between them and all the other forms of life which is invisible in the picture. There is an interesting Youtube video where Rob Dunn talks about all the microbial matter found in our homes.
    The "green revolution" of 30 or 40 years ago increased crop yields at the price of restricting plant diversity even further and spraying everything with artificial poisons. And now we have glyphosate - or "Roundup" - which is supposed to exterminate all plants except those which have been genetically modified to survive a dowsing of glyphosate. The author does not condemn these developments. He treats them as if they are necessary for feeding the billions of people in the world. He also describes positively the technology for genetically altering the genome of plants, causing them to spontaneously produce artificial insecticides. But surely this is making agriculture even more fragile, prone to disastrous failures. The groundwater is becoming poisoned. As I have written here somewhere before, in contrast with 10 or 20 years ago, we see few bees and other insects in our garden. When traveling on the motorway for a few hours in the summer, the windscreen does have numbers of insect splotches, but much fewer than what used to be the case.
    We buy almost exclusively "organic" food, that is, food which is derived from plants which have not been sprayed with poisons and which have not been altered using genetic engineering. It is somewhat more expensive than sprayed foods, but not that much. More and more farmers in Europe are changing to organic farming. The fields of organically grown wheat, potatoes and all that look just as green and abundant as those of "conventional" farms. Many people say that it is simply false to assert that artificial poisons are necessary in order to feed the world. Often the yields of organic crops exceed those of conventional crops.
    Time and again Rob Dunn finds it necessary to invoke the meme of "climate change". New crop varieties must be developed to endure the imagined horrors of future climate. The last chapter I reached was about Syria. He recounts the famine of 3000 years ago which is thought to have resulted from an extended dry period lasting perhaps 200 years. Then we are told that "climate modelers" have shown that Syria will in the next few years experience a drought which will last for thousands of years. The story then lurched into something about how evil President Bashar Assad is, at which point I stopped reading the book.
    Looking at the video, Rob Dunn seems to be an interesting, intelligent person who has much to tell us. But he would do well to switch off his television and let his brain recover from the garbage it seems to have assimilated there. And he would also do well to realize that the computer programs which "climate modelers" write are unable to predict the "climate" even a year or two into the future, let alone a thousand years. As they say: "garbage in, garbage out". But despite this garbage it is a worthwhile book, describing the very important yet little recognized work being done by a few individuals to try to protect and preserve the diversity of plants in the world.

Old God's Time, by Sebastian Barry

        This one reminded me of all the John Banville books I read last year. An old police officer, retired for nine months, unsteady, frail, confused, progressing beyond the first stages of dementia. He is living in an apartment attached to an old castle overlooking the sea on the west coast of Ireland. We learn that as a child he was an orphan in a Catholic orphanage. He was beaten daily by the vicious priests. At night he lay awake in bed, a small child of five or six, frightened of the footsteps of the priest coming ether to beat him again or to homosexually rape him. When he was 16 he was finally able to leave all of the horror and torture, joining the army to become a sniper in Malaya, killing many people, and eventually an Irish policeman. His wife was similarly an orphan in a Catholic institution who was continuously raped as a small child. The criminal priests behind all this evil had been protected by the Catholic Church, but some time in the past of his career as a policeman he has resolved the situation. His wife has long since died, as have his two children. He sometimes hallucinates about them. But now the past is catching up. It is not an hallucination.
    Just this past week I had a long and pleasant talk with an Irish fellow who is even older than I am. He was an opera singer in Italy, England, Ireland, and wherever opera is sung. He told me that he attended a Catholic school as a child in Ireland, and so I asked him if he knew of any suggestion of sexual abuse. But he said no, of course not. The priests and nuns were fine, honorable people. His school was not a boarding school, and certainly not an orphanage. Perhaps Ireland is not always as horrible as John Banville and Sebastian Barry would make us believe, despite their poetic prose.