In the early 2000s, my brother briefly worked as an executive for a Taiwanese-owned manufacturing company in China. It was a company of truly epic pro...moreIn the early 2000s, my brother briefly worked as an executive for a Taiwanese-owned manufacturing company in China. It was a company of truly epic proportions, employing hundreds of thousands in China and abroad, and manufacturing for virtually all the big names in consumer electronics sold all over the world. If you use an IPad or any other Apple product, it would have passed through one of its gargantuan production facilities. Its ‘campus’ in Longhua, an industrial suburb of Shenzhen, was practically a city unto itself with massive dormitories, shops, a sports center and a hospital. Security was tight, discipline militaristic, living condition Spartan and working hours extremely long. Assembly-line pay was miniscule by first world standards, but slightly above average for China. Worker suicides were not unknown*. Once in a blue moon, the big boss, a Taiwanese self-made billionaire who scoffed at business school grads, would drop by to preach the virtues of “hard work” and four hours of sleep a day to stadium-full of employees. On certain auspicious days, everyone had to line up to pay their respect to the Tu Di Gong, the Chinese earth god of wealth, eliciting muffled objections from the Taiwanese Christians and mainlanders brought up as atheists by the Communist state. The Taiwanese executives and managers spoke Taiwanese Hokkien among themselves, a language not understood by most of the mainlanders, and looked down on their workers, migrants from the rural interior who formed the backbone of the company’s operations.
After a while, my brother’s functional Mandarin became good enough to talk directly to the workers. He was impressed by their capacity for hard work and innate intelligence. Considering that these people were probably the first generation ever to leave the farm and were spottily educated in rural schools, it was a revelation to see how quickly they learned how the factory worked and to make hi-tech products according to complex instructions. After working hours, he wandered around the town, an industrial Wild West full of shops selling cheap and/or bootleg goods. You could walk into a hole-in-the-wall electronics shop and buy, say, a ‘Sony’ DVD player for a fraction of the official price. Or, if you liked the design of the Sony but preferred the specs of the Phillips --- mei wenti! No problem. They could assemble one for you. The more reputable shops got their wares from the factories that made these brands, so in a sense they were ‘genuine’ knock-offs. Everyone was ambitious, inured to working conditions that were unthinkable in developed countries, and had no respect whatsoever for intellectual property. The officials expected kickbacks, and practically anything was permissible for the right price. Currency manipulation aside, these attitudes seem to be the real cause behind China’s spectacular economic rise.
This book is a fascinating, occasionally voyeuristic, study of the lives of the assembly-line workers who fueled this rise, specifically a couple of factory girls in Dongguan, another industrial town not far from Shenzhen. Chang, a second-generation Chinese American, followed each of her subjects for years, chronicling their working and private lives, collecting information about their family history and even gaining access to their diaries. Daughters, who are less valued under the Confucian system, became the primary breadwinners of the family under the new values of industrialization (sons are often required to stay in the village to care for their ancestral farms and many factories prefer young women as they are considered more diligent and easier to manage). For the first time in history, unmarried, working-class women call the shots and they are ambitious enough to make the most of this opportunity. A sweatshop job is a stepping-stone to a white-collar job in the same factory. A receptionist with a talent for public speaking can become a successful recruiter for a MLM company. Farm girls who never graduated middle school could own export-oriented SMEs. There is a darker side to all of this, and Chang is never sentimental about her girls; she doesn’t shy away from writing about the sometimes-Machiavellian ethos they employed to get ahead, or about the bogus and criminal enterprises that proliferated to take advantage of ignorant migrant workers.
Between stories of the factory girls, Chang inserted her own family’s history of migration. It is decades and continents apart, for the Changs were an educated, upper middle class family that migrated to America after the Communist victory, but it serves as an interesting contrast to the experiences of today’s rural migrants.
*Long after my brother left the company, these tragic incidents became a PR disaster for the company (and Apple). In response to this problem, the management planned to replace troublesome human workers with automatons. (less)
First, I must say that the title is a bit puzzling. I thought that “Visual History” meant something like ‘pictorial history’, but there are too few pi...moreFirst, I must say that the title is a bit puzzling. I thought that “Visual History” meant something like ‘pictorial history’, but there are too few pictures in the book to justify it. There is art and architecture galore, but other than that, there is a dearth of discussion about other aspects of culture. As for the personal, aside from a few brief anecdotes about the author's various visits to Rome, there is preciously little. Judging from the contents, perhaps the book should be titled ‘Art and Architecture in Rome, with Brief Historical Asides’ --- or something to that effect.
There is some history in the earlier chapters, which deal with the Roman Empire and its papal successor, but once Hughes gets to the Renaissance, it’s all art and artists. History only resurfaces after the great works of art have dwindled by the 19th century. Then, it’s almost exclusively political history. The dichotomy is at times disorienting --- I’d love to know more about the political and cultural context of the great artistic eras, or about how the city was governed, and how ordinary citizens lived. Instead, we get some tangential history that is interesting in itself, but is not that relevant to Rome, such as the history of the Albigensian Crusade (obviously, it has something to do with the papacy, but it took place entirely in Provence).
The art history/criticism that is the meat of this book is brisk, bristling with interesting details and occasionally memorably phrased: the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling is “almost all body, or bodies. The only sign of a nature that is not flesh is an occasional patch of bare earth and, in the Garden of Eden, a tree”; Caravaggio “thrashed about in the etiquette of early Seicento Rome like a shark in a net.” It is fascinating to learn about the history of all of those obelisks that dot the Roman landscape and the engineering feats that were accomplished to move and erect them. Or about the creative recycling/vandalism that went on through Rome’s history until relatively recent times (the Colosseum, for example, was used as a convenient quarry for the new Vatican, and the ancient bronze cladding of the Pantheon was stripped to make Bernini’s massive baldachino in St. Peter’s). Hughes goes beyond the familiar superstars like Michelangelo and Raphael, covering lesser-known artists like Guido Reni (“There can be few painters in history whose careers show such a spectacular rise to the heights of reputation, followed by such a plunge to the depths.”) and Annibale Caracci, who painted the staterooms of Palazzo Farnese. This was done during a particularly dissolute era in the history of the Church, when it was perfectly okay for a cardinal, later Pope Paul III, to have his private residence decorated with pagan soft porn scenes with a bestial twist like this one (it’s classical! --- it’s from Ovid’s Metamorphoses!):
The Rape of Ganymede by Jupiter's Eagle with Satyrs Ouch!
Hughes points out that “to call such a theme inappropriate for a future pontiff would be a mistake: he had been made a cardinal by the Borgia Pope Alexander VI, whose mistress was Alessandro Farnese’s sister, Giulia Farnese. Moreover, he had four illegitimate children of his own, plus an unknown number of by blows.” As a Jesuit-educated ex-Catholic, Hughes pulls no punches against his former faith, in most cases with some justification --- scathingly denouncing the corrupt Renaissance papacy, the reactionary Church of the 19th century, the appeasement of Nazis and Fascists in the 20th, and the $ 500 “hefty ransom” that the Vatican demanded for a private tour of the Sistine Chapel today. But he’s at his crankiest (and funniest) best when charting the decline of 21st century Rome, where statesmanship has gone down from this
Augustus of Prima Porta
“…a multi-multi-millionaire…who seems to have no cultural interest…apart from top-editing the harem of blondies for his quiz shows.”
and art has degenerated from this
“Opening the can would, of course, destroy the value of the artwork. You cannot know that the shit is really inside, or that whatever may be inside is really shit…so far none has been opened; it seems unlikely that any will be, since the last can of Manzoni’s Merda d’artista to go on the market fetched the imposing sum of $80,000.”
First things first: that wasn’t my real name. The Empress Elizabeth, who was Peter the Great’s daughter (now, t...moreFROM THE MEMOIRS OF CATHERINE THE GREAT
First things first: that wasn’t my real name. The Empress Elizabeth, who was Peter the Great’s daughter (now, that is a man who truly deserves “the Great” after his name!), changed my name to Ekaterina when she converted me into the Russian Orthodox religion. As for that superfluous title that follows my new name, it was prematurely bestowed on me by the Legislative Commission that I convened to give Russia a more enlightened legal code (more on this later). I brought them together to study laws, and they were busy discussing my virtues instead. Imagine that! I still blush with embarrassment whenever I recall the incident, although I cannot say that I’m thoroughly displeased with it.
My real name is Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg. Yes --- I was a German import. Many Romanov royals, including my future husband Tsar Peter III, are actually Germans, specifically Prussians. This caused some awkwardness later when we went to war against Prussia in my reign --- but that was still far in the future. Papa was the ruler of the Anhalt-Zerbst principality. Some people would call him a minor aristocrat, but he was still a prince, nein? Mama was formerly a princess of the house of Holstein-Gottorp (yes, that’s where those lovely cows come from), whose late brother was affianced to the young Empress Elizabeth. He died of smallpox before the wedding, but Elizabeth never forgot him, and when it was time to look for a spouse for the Tsarevich, she naturally turned toward his family.
I was all of 14 years old when Elizabeth summoned Mama and me to Russia to marry Peter III. I was just a tiny slip of a girl then! The entirety of my trousseau consisted of three old dresses, a dozen chemises, a few pair of stockings and a few handkerchiefs. You see, Mama had spent all of the money that the empress sent for me on her own wardrobe. That’s Mama for you. Soon after my wedding, Elizabeth unceremoniously sent her back home for being a meddlesome mother-in-law and a clumsy Prussian secret agent. I never saw her again for the rest of my life.
That’s my husband. As you can see, he’s not much of a catch, but he’s still Peter the Great’s only surviving grandson, and that’s who I married --- the future Tsar of all the Russias. Peter was a sickly man-child who would rather play with his toy soldiers on our marital bed than with me. He was not allowed to play with them during the day, so they were hidden under the bed. As soon as we were both in bed, Madame Krause, our nanny/supervisor, would come in and brought out the toy soldiers. I couldn’t even move in the bed --- they were so many of them! Peter played with them until well after midnight, and every time someone knocked at the door to check on us, we had to scramble to hide the toys under the blanket. It was farcical: a newly married couple constantly on guard lest they be caught playing with toys. But the Empress Elizabeth was not amused when, years into our marriage, we had not produced the heir that she was expecting from us.
The fact is that my husband never touched me for the first nine years of our marriage. There was a lot of speculation as to the reason why. He openly told me that he was in love with another woman --- one of my ladies in waiting --- but it seemed that the relationship was similarly unconsummated. Others speculated that he was just simply too physically and mentally immature to father a child. Some of our learned doctors even diagnosed him with phimosis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phimosis). Sergei Saltykov, the first of my twelve lovers (oh, how handsome he was!), convinced him to have an operation to correct the condition. You see, once Sergei was involved with me, he became anxious of his own safety. What if I got pregnant? But if Peter had been known to be able to consummate our marriage, who could say that Sergei was responsible? It turned out that my paramour was unnecessarily worried: the empress herself had instructed her minions to provide me with a more reliable male for the purposes of begetting an heir --- and Sergei was one of those considered! Anyway, I soon fell pregnant, resulting in Paul, the long-awaited Romanov heir.
Many people claimed to see a marked resemblance between my son and my husband, not just in looks, but also in their shared hobby of playing soldier. But whenever I wanted to needle my son, I always said that Sergei Saltykov was his father. We never got on well, Paul and I, perhaps because I rarely saw him during his childhood. The Empress Elizabeth whisked him away right after he was born, smothered him with frustrated maternal love and casted me aside. When my first grandson was born, I contemplated bypassing Paul altogether and make him Tsar Alexander I, but it was not to happen.
After the empress passed way, Peter briefly got to be Tsar, before he was forcibly deposed by the army, who made me empress instead. Peter idolized Frederick II, the Prussian king who was at war with us, and wanted to make peace with him. The patriotic Russian people hated this radical change in foreign policy and casted their lot with me instead. My then boyfriend, Grigory Orlov (that’s him below, by the way --- isn’t he dashing?), and his brother made sure that Peter was mysteriously dispatched soon after, and I got to gloriously rally the Russian people on horseback wearing the uniform of a colonel of the Preobrazhensky Regiment.
The reign of Catherine II officially begins!
I believed in the strong Russian motherland and added many territories, 520,000 km2 in all, to Peter the Great’s empire. When he was only able to gain a toehold in the south, I completed his conquest by defeating the ailing Turks (and gaining a warm water port, so crucial for Russia, in the process). The former Ottoman territories around the Black Sea, the Ukraine, and Crimea (which the love of my life, Grigory Potemkin, administered as my Viceroy) became Russian possessions. I also partitioned Poland, after putting my second lover, Stanislaus Poniatowski, on the throne of that country (poor sweetie, he actually didn’t want to be king, imagine that!).
On the home front, I tried my best to drag Russia into the modern age. Eighteen years of boredom and loneliness as an unhappily married woman gave me the opportunity to read many books. I imbibed the best ideas of the Aufklarung through the writings of M. Montesquieu (whose ideas I pillaged for the Nakaz, the new legal code that I envisioned for Russia), Mr. John Locke (what is more important than our children’s education, especially our girls?) and Signore Beccaria (torture is barbaric!). I corresponded with the best minds in France, including M. Voltaire (he called me “The Star of the North” --- such a sweet man!) and M. Diderot, whose work on his Encyclopedie I supported, and whose library I purchased --- on the condition that he got to keep it during his lifetime as I thought that it would be so cruel to separate a scholar from his books. M. Diderot actually visited me in St. Petersburg to express his gratitude, the poor sickly man. Unfortunately, many of these progressive ideas proved to be far too advanced for the country, and I had to reassert my absolute powers as the autocrat of all the Russias to prevent the total collapse of the social order, particularly during the savage Pugachev rebellion. That rough Cossack pretended to be my long dead husband --- what insolence!
The Benevolent Despot in action
Finally, I must say for myself that as a sovereign I wanted nothing other than what was good for my country, and that I had employed all the powers on my disposal to bring happiness, liberty and prosperity for my subjects. I am aware, however, that I have a number of detractors, who do not hesitate to concoct lies and outright fabrications to sully my good name. They alleged, for example, that the so-called “Potemkin Villages” deceived me during my visit to the Crimea in 1787. My darling Grigory (below --- mwah, mwah!) might have put some fresh paint on some of the settlements that we passed through, but he did not construct whole made-up villages for my benefit. And even if he did, do you think that they could have fooled me, and my whole entourage, which included courtiers, foreign diplomats and even Emperor Joseph II?
And as for that unspeakable, much more egregious fabrication--- let us just say that some men were troubled by the fact that there was an accomplished, powerful woman on the throne and would stop at nothing to slander her. Besides, I had had twelve handsome young men at my beck and call --- what would I need a horse for? (less)
For the Celebrity Death Match Review Tournament, Hamlet vs Winnie-the-Pooh
Sometimes Winnie-the-Pooh likes a game of some sort when he comes downstair...moreFor the Celebrity Death Match Review Tournament, Hamlet vs Winnie-the-Pooh
Sometimes Winnie-the-Pooh likes a game of some sort when he comes downstairs, and sometimes he likes to sit quietly in front of the fire and listen to a story. This eve- ning— "What about a story?" said Christopher Robin. "What about a story?" I said. "Could you very sweetly tell Winnie-the-Pooh one?" "I suppose I could," I said. "What sort of stories does he like?" "About himself. Because he's that sort of Bear." "Oh, I see. Well, this particular story is not about him, but it’s something that I think you both would like very much." "So could you very sweetly?" "I'll try," I said. So I tried.
Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about four hundred years ago, lived a prince called Hamlet in a castle in Denmark.
(“What is ‘Denmark’?” asked Christopher Robin. “It’s a northern European country where you pay taxes up to your nose, and where consequently you have to spend your entire working life at the Tivoli Gardens making giant LEGO figurines of Trolls and Cheese Danishes while drinking lots of beer.” “Winnie-the-Pooh isn't quite sure whether he would like to live there,” said Christopher Robin. “But I want to listen to the story,” said a growly voice. “Then I will go on,” said I.)
One night when he was out walking on the castle wall, Prince Hamlet saw a Ghost, who looked terribly like his late father, the King of Denmark. Hamlet wasn’t at all sure about what the Ghost was talking about, so he sat down at the foot of the castle, put his head between his hands and began to think. First of all he said to himself: “My father’s spirit in arms! All is not well. You don’t get all this talk about murders most foul and incestuous beds like that, just buzzing and buzzing without its meaning something. If there’s a buzzing-noise, somebody’s making a buzzing-noise, and the only reason for making a buzzing noise that I know is because there is something rotten in the state of Denmark.”
(“What is ‘incestuous’?” asked Christopher Robin. “Umm --- it’s when your mother sleeps with your uncle, instead of your father.” “What’s wrong with that?” “Uh --- grown-ups don’t like that. You’ll understand it when you’re older.” “Oh, it's one of those things. Alright. Back to the story.”)
Then he thought another long time, and said: “And the only reason for being a Prince that I know of is taking revenge.” And then he got up, and said: “And the only reason for taking revenge is so I can kill my uncle and my mother.” So he began to pretend to be mad.
He pretended and he pretended and he pretended, and as he pretended he sang a little song to himself. It went like this:
To be, or not to be—that is the question: Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune Or to take arms against a sea of troubles And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep—
“I forgot the rest --- it’s been awhile since I’ve been a schoolboy,” said I. “Oh, that’s alright. I don’t understand it anyway. Just go on with the story please,” said Christopher Robin. “Did he get to kill his uncle and mother?” asked a growly voice. “Well, he did kill his uncle with a sword, and his mother died drinking poisoned wine that was meant for him. But not before he made his girlfriend go mad and kill herself.” “But why?” asked Christopher Robin. “Umm --- maybe he didn’t mean to make her go mad. But he killed her father and that made her go mad. And then she drowned.” “I think this Hamlet is a bad man”, said a growly voice. “Is that the end of the story?” asked Christopher Robin. “No,” I said, “the story ends when Hamlet himself dies.” “Winnie-the-Pooh doesn’t really like this story,” said Christopher Robin. “Why? It is a good story, isn’t it?” asked I. “Because he hasn’t any brain,” answered Christopher Robin. He gave a deep sigh, picked his bear up by the leg and walked off to the door, trailing Winnie-the-Pooh behind him. At the door he turned and said, "Coming to see me have my bath?" "I might," I said. "Is that the only story that you know?" "We can listen to something more cheerful next time," I said. He nodded and went out . . . and in a moment I heard Winnie-the-Pooh—bump, bump, bump—going up the stairs behind him.
Winnie-the-Pooh votes for stories about himself against Hamlet because while he thinks that Hamlet is a good story, Hamlet himself is a VERY bad man. (less)
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. There were lots of forged writings in the ancient world, including biblical ones.
2. Out of...moreWhat I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. There were lots of forged writings in the ancient world, including biblical ones.
2. Out of the 27 books of the New Testament, 10 might have been forged works --- depending on which biblical scholar you talked to.
3. Some modern-day scholars of biblical textual criticism prefer to call them “pseudepigrapha” (“falsely attributed”), but this term is misleading, as the authors of these works intended to pass themselves off as someone else, typically an apostle or someone who was perceived as having authority in the early church, so these works should properly be deemed forgeries.
4. Other scholars argue that writing under someone else’s name, usually a master or leader of a religious/philosophical school is an acceptable practice in the ancient world. Biblical writers who wrote as Peter, Paul or any other authority figures merely followed this tradition. However, there is no evidence whatsoever that such a practice was deemed acceptable by people at that time: forgery, as it is now, was roundly condemned.
5. The inclusion of these forged works explains factual and theological inconsistencies in the New Testament. Did Paul forbid women leaders in the church or not? Did Peter and Paul get along famously from the beginning, or was there any friction between them? Did Peter think that sharing a (presumably non-Kosher) meal with Gentile converts OK or not? Did Paul think that physical resurrection is a future event that will happen at the end of time or something that had already happened?
6. Pontius Pilate, the man who ordered Jesus to be crucified, is a saint in the Abyssinian Church. This is largely due to forgeries that exonerated him from executing Jesus, placing the blame squarely on the ‘perfidious Jews’ instead.
7. Thomas is Jesus’ twin brother, at least according to the Gospel of Thomas, a Gnostic forgery from the Second Century.
8. According to the Acts of Peter, another non-canonical forgery, Peter proved himself as a true, miracle-working man of God by raising a smoked tuna from the dead.
9. Jesus was a mischievous 5-year old, according to the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, an ancient forgery fan fiction:
“The account begins with Jesus as a five-year-old playing by a stream near his home in Nazareth. The young Jesus gathers some of the water of the stream into a pool and orders it to become pure. And it does so, by his word alone. Jesus then stops down and forms twelve birds out of the mud. A Jewish man who is walking by becomes upset, because it is Sabbath and Jesus has violated the law by “working.” The man heads off to tell Joseph what his sons has done, and Joseph rushes to the stream to upbraid the boy for breaking the Sabbath. In response, Jesus claps his hands and cries out to the birds to come to life and fly away, and they do so. Here Jesus is shown to be above the law and to be the lord of life. Beyond that he has gotten off the hook with his father by destroying, in effect, any incriminating evidence. Mud birds? What birds?” *
10. If you had believed that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and discovered otherwise through your textual criticism studies, you will want to spread the word with a missionary zeal.
*The Koran 5.110: " When Allah saith: O Jesus, son of Mary! Remember My favour unto thee and unto thy mother; how I strengthened thee with the holy Spirit, so that thou spakest unto mankind in the cradle as in maturity; and how I taught thee the Scripture and Wisdom and the Torah and the Gospel; and how thou didst shape of clay as it were the likeness of a bird by My permission, and didst blow upon it and it was a bird by My permission, and thou didst heal him who was born blind and the leper by My permission; and how thou didst raise the dead by My permission; and how I restrained the Children of Israel from (harming) thee when thou camest unto them with clear proofs, and those of them who disbelieved exclaimed: This is naught else than mere magic;" (less)
Me: “Well, here’s the book I told you about, Molly, the one that will tell me everything there is to know about you.”
Me: “Yes, that’s a...moreMe: “Well, here’s the book I told you about, Molly, the one that will tell me everything there is to know about you.”
Me: “Yes, that’s a good girl! Let’s see, this book is written by Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, a cognitive scientist specializing in animal research. She must be one smart lady. And she’s also a dog person! This should be interesting. Let’s loll on the sofa and read it.”
Molly: (jumps up and looks expectantly)
Me: “The title is a part of a joke: “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” Heh heh. Isn’t that funny?”
Molly: (jumps into lap and licks mouth)
Me: “Aww, stop it! I’m trying to read here. According to page 51, licking around my mouth is a manipulative behavior. You are stimulating me so that I’d vomit up some partially digested meat for you to eat. Gross. So please sit nicely and listen.”
Molly: (curls up with a sigh)
Me: “Do you know that you’re better than chimps in reading humans? They have this experiment in which dogs and chimps had to find hidden food items utilizing clues from humans. Some of the humans were made to wear blindfolds or buckets over their head, while others had unimpeded view of where the food was supposed to be hidden. Chimps begged from both kinds of humans, while dogs begged from those whose eyes were visible. See --- you’re smarter than our primate cousins!”
Me: “You’re right. Chimps are way overrated. How about this: a dog can detect a teaspoon of sugar diluted in a million gallons of water --- two Olympic-sized pools full. That’s your real-life super power, Krypto! That’s Superman’s dog, by the way. He flies around with this cute little cape --- ”
Me: “Nap time, eh? Hmm…more animal research: wolves, bees, deers, ticks. Actually, all I want to read about is dogs, dogs and dogs. Some of these researches are interesting in their own right and are useful as comparison, but others seem to be barely tangential. This writer can be very long-winded.”
Me: “An attention-getting bark, which is distinct from the rumble of a growl, or the ominous snarl (page 140). Do you know that your barks can be as loud as 130 decibels? That’s up there with thunderclaps and plane takeoffs. That's another super power! Why are you looking at me like that?”
Molly: (glances at the dining room, tail wagging)
Me: (looks at the clock). “It’s time for lunch! Your circadian rhythm tells you that. Okay, let’s eat.”
Molly: (snatches the book and runs away with it)
Me: “Hey stop that! I still have to find out why you Fox Terriers are such little rascals!”
For the Celebrity Death Match Review Tournament, Macbeth vs The Complete Sherlock Holmes
When I glance over my notes and records of the Sherlock Holmes...moreFor the Celebrity Death Match Review Tournament, Macbeth vs The Complete Sherlock Holmes
When I glance over my notes and records of the Sherlock Holmes cases between the years ’82 and ’90, I happen to come upon a half-forgotten adventure that is probably the strangest of them all. My faithful readers, who are no stranger to odd going-ons involving my famous friend’s cases, would be reminded of stories such as The Hound of the Baskervilles or The Sussex Vampire. Yet, this particular case is particularly odd and as such I have never set it on writing, as its features are so fantastical that it is scarcely believable. Even after all these years, I am still not quite convinced that it really happened.
It was in the latter days of September, and the equinoctial gales had set in with exceptional violence. All day the wind had screamed and the rain had beaten against the windows, so that even here in the heart of great, hand-made London we were forced to raise our minds for the instant from the routine of life and to recognize the presence of those great elemental forces which shriek at mankind through the bars of his civilization, like untamed beasts in a cage. As evening drew in, the storm grew higher and louder, and the wind cried and sobbed like a child in the chimney. Sherlock Holmes sat moodily at one side of the fireplace cross-indexing his records of crime, while I at the other was deep in one of Clark Russell's fine sea-stories until the howl of the gale from without seemed to blend with the text, and the splash of the rain to lengthen out into the long swash of the sea waves. My wife was on a visit to her mother's, and for a few days I was a dweller once more in my old quarters at Baker Street.
"Why," said I, glancing up at my companion, "that was surely the bell. Who could come to-night? Some friend of yours, perhaps?"
"Except yourself I have none," he answered. "I do not encourage visitors."
"A client, then?"
"If so, it is a serious case. Nothing less would bring a man out on such a day and at such an hour. But I take it that it is more likely to be some crony of the landlady's."
Sherlock Holmes was wrong in his conjecture, however, for there came a step in the passage and a tapping at the door. He stretched out his long arm to turn the lamp away from himself and towards the vacant chair upon which a newcomer must sit.
"Come in!" said he.
The woman who entered was cloaked in black, her head covered with a peculiar conical hat. A heavy veil hid her countenance, which judging by the sinewy and leathery appearance of her hands was not a rosy-cheeked youthful one. A faint smell of something suggestive of sulphur accompanied her. She was silent for a while, and then she spoke with an eerie, quavering voice,
“Fair is foul and foul is fair. Hover through the fog and filthy air.”
“I beg your pardon, madam”, Holmes said, “are you here for a consultation? I am afraid that you must speak more clearly so that I can hear you.”
“I shall kill thou like the swine thou art, But I’d rather send thou sailing on a sieve To the Thane’s abode shall thou depart Here I give thee a wind!”
At the end of the sinister incantation, our rooms were enveloped in a thick grayish mist, thicker even than the fog that habitually descended upon the streets of London. The room seemed to swirl before our eyes and when the mist finally cleared, it became apparent that we were not in our Baker Street den anymore. I was too stunned to speak, but my eyes gradually became used to our gloomy surroundings. Dimly, I perceived that we were in a stone room with a high vaulted ceiling.
“Holmes!”, I cried with mounting alarm. “Where are we?”
It took some time for him to answer. “ I believe that we are in a sort of a castle, my friend, though I have no idea how we got here. Or whether this whole thing is not an extremely elaborate, albeit an astonishingly convincing illusion.”
Before I had the chance to react to this astounding pronouncement, I heard a man shouting, “awake, awake! Ring the alarum bell, murder and treason!” We ran toward the source of the commotion, our steps clattering through the cold flagstones, only to find ourselves in a great hall, evidently of a great age, filled with a number of people. They were dressed strangely, not quite a few in what appear to be kilts. They were too noisily agitated to notice us. After a while, some of them rushed into another part of the castle, Holmes and I hard on their heels.
“Holmes”, said I in an aside, “how come that there are always murder and treason whenever you come into the picture?”
“Whoever --- or whatever brought us into this place probably desperately needs my expertise, Watson. So let us dispense with rational explanations now and follow the scent. The game is afoot!”
We came into a grand room furnished with rich tapestries, in the center of which stood a heavily carved, canopied bed. In the center of that bed laid an old man in a bloodstained nightgown. He was as dead as a doornail. On the foot of the bed sprawled two young men, utterly insensible, unmannerly breeched with gore. A pair of bloody daggers were strewn upon their pillows.
“There’s the victim!”, said I. “Obviously, these lads killed him while in a drunken stupor. How vile!”
“Tut-tut! Not so fast, Watson. I believe that these were merely scapegoats --- red herrings to distract us from the real murderers!”
“And pray tell me, who are they, Holmes?”
With a dramatic flourish, his face keen with excitement like a hound hard on the chase, he pointed to a couple standing next to the bed.
“These are the murderers! The Thane of Glamis and his lady, Whose hands are stained with royal blood, A stain that shall not be washed clean Until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill Shall come against him.”
“What? Why are you speaking in such a peculiar way, Holmes?” I asked in amazement.
Because we are in the Bard’s play, Macbeth to be precise. Where everyone speak in verse, Unless they madmen or villains be.
I have not the faintest idea, Watson But anything that involves ruinous-butt Cannot be good for certain.
Thou meddling spur-galled vile worm! Thou tottering base-court bum-bailey!
There she goes again, Holmes!
[LADY MACBETH slowly brandishes a blood-stained dagger]
Let us escape while we can Here take this from my hand ---
[Throws an object at WATSON]
What is this?
‘Tis the eye of newt or toe of frog, Or perhaps wool of bat or tongue of dog. I cannot be certain of its substance I pilfered it from the witches when I had the chance, And shall it be the means of our return!
[HOLMES and WATSON escape through an opening in the wall while thick fog obscures the stage]
Did I imagine it all? Were I caught in a dream, induced by certain substances that I knew Holmes habitually indulged in during those days? We never spoke of the strange incident, and the vivid memories slowly faded, but whenever I sat in front of the fire with a volume of the Bard’s works in my lap, I habitually turned to the Scottish play. I fancy that I heard these immortal words from the doomed Thane of Glamis himself and shuddered in awe.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more: it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing. (less)
This must be what real-life spying must be like: instead of tall, dark and handsome --- short, graying and pudgy; instead of hot babes and flashy cars...more This must be what real-life spying must be like: instead of tall, dark and handsome --- short, graying and pudgy; instead of hot babes and flashy cars --- unfaithful wives and nondescript vans; instead of a gleaming HQ stuffed to the gills with gadgets that would make Steve Jobs’ jaw drop --- musty offices and yellowing archives guarded by ‘janitors’ and matronly secretaries who are more apt in dispensing Jasmine tea bags than sexy flirtations. Spies and their runners are recruited from a narrow, incestuous circle of academia, men who could very well pass their lives as unremarkable City accountants or Oxbridge dons, if they had not been drawn into the ‘Circus’ during their formative years. Le Carre’s morally murky world of espionage is both utterly convincing, no doubt due to his own real-life Circus experiences, and genuinely suspenseful, with a quality of writing that goes far beyond the average thriller. Characters are imbued with novelistic depth and feelings, and the story itself is told in sequences of set pieces, mostly of the talky sort, which could be very tedious indeed if the writing is not up to the task. That said, the action unfolds slowly across leaps of space and time in a rather cerebral manner, and it’s not difficult to get bogged down in details (admirable in their verisimilitude though they are) and lose the big picture altogether. I’m glad that I read it on the iPad, which comes with a handy search function. Who’s this Sand guy again? Oh, he is Camilla’s husband, last mentioned a hundred odd pages ago. Definitely not a cozy mystery that you can follow while keeping one eye on the TV. (less)
A reasonably entertaining popular account of the Third Crusade, focusing on the storied relationship between Saladin and Richard Coeur de Lion, the fo...more A reasonably entertaining popular account of the Third Crusade, focusing on the storied relationship between Saladin and Richard Coeur de Lion, the fodder for so much romantic tales concocted by medieval troubadours. However, Reston seems to be unable to decide whether he wanted to write history or historical fiction, resulting in passages such as this:
“These affections were prophesied by no less a figure than Merlin the magician, who proclaimed that “the eagle of the broken covenant shall rejoice in her third nesting.””
(- 1 star)
He also seems to be inordinately fixated on Richard’s alleged homosexuality (“Richard himself, in all the glory of his masculinity and homosexuality, called the Griffones “effeminate”.”) and his supposed affair with his fellow Crusader/ nemesis Philip II of France. Brief googling reveals that there is no consensus between historians regarding the first allegation, and hardly any evidence to support the latter. To analyze any interaction between Richard and Philip through the angle of this imaginary affair is misleading, as well as annoying.
(- 1 star)
The real history is dramatic enough by itself, involving not just the chivalric exploits of the protagonists, but also epic sieges, storm-tossed voyages and savage assassinations (by the original Assassins, disciples of Hassan-i Sabbah’s murderous Ismailli sect, a fascinating topic by itself) --- but Reston’s questionable assumptions and general lack of credible citations make for a highly suspect read. Why not just make a historical novel out of it and dispense with pesky historical facts altogether?
At the tender age of eighteen, on the cusp of adulthood and having been expelled from his last school, young Patrick Leigh Fermor decided to go on a w...moreAt the tender age of eighteen, on the cusp of adulthood and having been expelled from his last school, young Patrick Leigh Fermor decided to go on a walkabout through the pre-war Mitteleuropa wonderland, all the way to the distant minarets of Constantinople. These are some of the people and things that he encountered along the way:
1. Goose-stepping Brownshirts and beer-swilling S.S. officers
“The song that kept time to their tread, “Volk, ans Gewehr!” ---often within earshot during the following weeks was succeeded by the truculent beat of the Horst Wessel Lied: once heard, never forgotten…”
2. Village stores stocked to the gills with Nazi paraphernalia
“…swastika armbands, daggers for the Hitler Youth, blouses for Hitler Maidens and brown shirts for grown-up S.A. men; swastika button-holes were arranged in a pattern which read Heil Hitler and an androgynous wax-dummy with a pearly smile was dressed up in the full uniform of a Sturmabteilungsmann.”
3. Brueghelian winter idylls
“A minute later, it was a faraway speck, and the silent landscape, with its Brueghelish skaters circling as slowly as flies along the canals and the polders, seemed tamer after its passing. Snow had covered the landscape with a sparkling layer and the slatey hue of the ice was only becoming visible as the looping arabesques of the skaters laid it bare. Following the white parallelograms the lines of the willow dwindled as insubstantially as trails of vapour. The breeze that impelled those hastening clouds had met no hindrance for a thousand miles and a traveler moving at a footpace along the hog’s back of a dyke above the cloud-shadows and the level champaign was filled with intimations of limitless space.”
4. Friendly peasants in clogs and lots of cows
“In the barn on the other side, harrows, ploughshares and scythes and sieves loomed for a moment, and beyond, tethered to a manger that ran the length of the barn, horns and tousled brows and liquid eyes gleamed in the lantern’s beams.”
5. Gemutliche gasthauses with kind proprietors
“…for in the end someone woke me and led me upstairs like a sleep-walker and showed me into a bedroom with a low and slanting ceiling and an eiderdown like a giant meringue.”
6. Party-loving, pretty Frauleins
“When I woke up on the sofa---rather late; we had sat up talking and drinking Annie’s father’s wine before going to bed---I had no idea where I was; it was a frequent phenomenon on this journey.”
7. Kooky aristocrats and fascinating pedants with a yen for the glorious days of the Kaiser and the Austro-Hungarian Empire
“The Count was old and frail. He resembled, a little, Max Beerbohm in later life, with a touch of Franz Joseph minus the white side-whiskers.”
8. A Shakespeare quoting, enterprising tramp
””Ah, dear young!” he said, “I am of ripe years already! I would always be frightening them! You, so tender, will always melt hearts.””
9. Balkan Ghettoes full of living Hasidic Jews
”…Talmudic students of about my age…their cheeks were as pale as the wax that lit the page while the dense black lettering swallowed up their youths and their lives.”
10. Grunewald’s horrific crucifixion
“…the special law of gravity, tearing the nail-holes wider, dislocates the fingers and expands them like spider’s legs. Wounds fester, bones break through the flesh and the grey lips, wrinkling concentrically round a tooth-set hole, gape in a cringing spasm of pain. The body, mangled, dishonoured and lynched, twists in rigor mortis.”
And most importantly:
11. Grand architecture --- to wax poetic about in a sensory-overloaded, vertigo-inducing manner.
The painted ceiling at the Melk Abbey
“...rococo flowers into miraculously imaginative and convincing stage scenery. A brilliant array of skills, which touches everything from the pillars of the colonnade to the twirl of a latch, links the most brittle and transient-seeming details to the most magnificent and enduring spoils of the forests and quarries. A versatile genius sends volley after volley of fantastic afterthoughts through the great Vitruvian and Palladian structures. Concave and convex uncoil and pursue each other across the pilasters in ferny arabesques, liquid notions ripple, waterfalls running silver and blue drop to lintels and hang frozen there in curtains of artificial icicles. Ideas go feathering up in mock fountains and float away through the colonnades in processions of cumulus and cirrus. Light is distributed operatically and skies open in a new change of gravity that has lifted wingless saints and evangelists on journeys of aspiration towards three-dimensional sunbursts and left them levitated there, floating among cornices and spandrels and acanthus leaves and architectural ribands crinkled still with pleats from lying long folded in bandboxes...”
Fermor’s writing is as marvelous as the brooding castles and baroque palaces that he encountered along his journey, but at times so dizzyingly rich and dazzlingly erudite that it is best taken in measured doses at a time. European culture and history is an open book in his hands and what a wonderful and profoundly strange place it is!
Prepares sturdy boots for the remaining trek to Constantinople.
1. Orang Saudi Arabia banyak yang masih hidup di zaman Jahilliyah.
2. Di Arab kalo summer panasnya kagak ketulu...moreHal-hal yang gue pelajari dari buku ini:
1. Orang Saudi Arabia banyak yang masih hidup di zaman Jahilliyah.
2. Di Arab kalo summer panasnya kagak ketulungan.
3. Cowo Arab banyak bulunya.
4. Kalo jadi TKI di Saudi harus siap diperkosa jiwa dan raga.
5. Di Arab banyak penampakan 'botol kecap'. Gede-gede lagi.
6. Kalo gak mau digarap majikan, TKW kalo tidur harus bawa palu dan arit. Emangnya TKI apa PKI?
7. Coffee Shop jaringan internasional belum tentu manajemen /karyawannya juga berkualitas internasional. Kalo udah habis akal, susu basi, tisu bekas dan paper cup bisa di 'daur ulang'. Jadi parno ngopi di cafe.
8. Kalo lo pelanggan yang reseh, Cappucino lo yang harganya limapuluh ribuan bisa diludahin atau dikencingin baristanya. Muffin lo diselipin upil. Makanya jangan reseh.
9. Kalo ada orang Arab marah2, elus2 aja jenggotnya.
10. Terjemahan Inggrisnya 'lelaki buaya darat' itu 'land crocodile man', tapi terjemahan Inggrisnya 'Dasar lo tukang berzinah! Moga2 buntung penis lo!' itu 'You're such a good man. May you and your family always be blessed.'
Cerita para Indunisi di tanah Arab: kocak tapi nelangsa.(less)
A Quiz Who Says What: Writers on Travel and Travel Writing
1. “Any country which displays more than one statue of the same living politician...moreA Quiz Who Says What: Writers on Travel and Travel Writing
1. “Any country which displays more than one statue of the same living politician is a country which is headed for trouble.”
2. A country’s pornography is a glimpse into its subconscious mind.
3. A nation’s shitting habits are the key to all its citizens’ attitudes.
4. “Literature is made out of the misfortunes of others. A large number of travel books fail simply because of the monotonous good luck of their authors”.
5. “The subject matter of the best travel books is the conflict between writer and place. It is not important which of them carries the day, so long as the struggle is faithfully recorded. It takes a writer with a gift for describing a situation to do this well, which is perhaps the reason why so many travel books that remain in the memory have been produced by writers expert at the fashioning of novels”.
6. Americans are overfamiliar slobs and hypocrites who did nothing but spit.
7. “I do not think I shall ever forget the sight of Etna at sunset, the mountain almost invisible in a blur of pastel grey, glowing on the top and then repeating its shape, as though reflected, in a wisp of grey smoke with the whole horizon behind radiant with pink light, fading gently into the grey pastel sky. Nothing I have seen in Art of Nature was quite so revolting”.
8. “Men who go looking for the source of a river are merely looking for the source of something missing in themselves, and never finding it”.
9. “Let’s say that Albert Speer; while leafing through a book on Gaudi, swallowed an overdose of LSD and began to build a nuptial catacomb for Liza Minelli. But that doesn’t give you an idea. Let’s say Arcimboldi builds the Sagrada Familia for Dolly Paton. Or: Carmen Miranda designs a Tiffany locale for the Jolly Hotel chain. Or D’Annunzio’s Vittoriale imagined by Bob Cratchitt, Calvino’s Invisible Cities described by Judith Krantz and executed by Leonor Fini for the plush-doll industry. Chopin Sonata in B flat minor sung by Perry Como in an arrangement by Liberace and accompanied by the Marine Band. No, that still isn’t right.”
10. “Implicit in the unspoken contract between a travel writer and his audience is the assumption that the writer is for the most part sincere in truthfully recounting his experiences: that he does not fabricate incidents that never happened, or invent characters that never existed in the interest of adding a much needed piquancy to his narrative. But given the human propensity for embroidery, self aggrandizement and even mythomania, how easy it is for this trust to be breached with impunity!”
The List of Suspects
Paul Theroux --- Sir Richard Francis Burton --- Paul Bowles --- V.S. Naipaul --- V.S. Pritchett --- Evelyn Waugh --- Fanny Trollope --- Umberto Eco
1. Paul Theroux, The Pillars of Hercules.
2. “It seemed incontestable to me that a country’s pornography was a glimpse into its subconscious mind, revealing its inner life, its fantasy, its guilts, its passions, even its child–rearing, not to say its marriages and courtship rituals. It was not the whole truth, but it contained many clues and even more warnings, especially of its men”. Paul Theroux, The Pillars of Hercules.
3. “I wonder, I wonder if the shitting habits of Indians are not the key to all their attitudes”. V.S. Naipaul, quoted in The World is What It Is.
4. V.S. Pritchett, Complete Essays (1991).
5. Paul Bowles, The Challenge to Identity (1958).
6. “I do not like them. I do not like their principles. I do not like their manners, I do not like their opinions”. Fanny Trollope, mother of Anthony, The Domestic Manners of Americans (1832).
7. Evelyn Waugh, Labels (1930).
8. Sir Richard Francis Burton.
9. Umberto Eco, trying to describe the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, Travels in Hyperreality (1995).
10. Sandybanks, in her review of The Tao of Travel (2011). (less)
The Siege of Krishnapur succeeds because Farrell let his colonial characters expose their own tragicomic ridiculousness with minimal intervention. Her...moreThe Siege of Krishnapur succeeds because Farrell let his colonial characters expose their own tragicomic ridiculousness with minimal intervention. Here, in the last novel of his Empire Trilogy, he was much more heavy-handed, resulting in several main characters that are outright caricatures. Walter Blackett, the head of the eponymous British trading firm that grew fat on the pre-war Malayan rubber boom, is the Evil Capitalist-Imperialist-Racist who bumbles through his public and private lives with all the tact and sensitivity of The Office’s Michael Scott. At one point early in the novel, Farrell made him do a Bond villain speech while giving an explanation (to an appalled British army officer) on how his firm managed to drive down the selling price of Burmese rice:
“ ’You see, the Chettyar money lenders in Burma, and to a lesser extent, here in Malaya, too, acted on the peasants like saddle-soap on leather. They softened them up for us. Of course, some of the Chetties became rivals in the milling of crops but that couldn’t be helped. Without them to get the peasants used to dealing in cash (which, of course, in practice meant tricking them into debts they would have to pay up) rather than in barter of produce the merchants would have been all in the poorhouse, including Mr. Webb. One bad crop with forward contracts to fill!’ ”
Walter even has porcine bristles on his back, which “had a tendency to rise when he was angry and sometimes, even, in moments of conjugal intimacy.”
The other main character, Matthew Webb, the son of Blackett’s partner who comes to Malaya to inherit his father’s interest in the firm, is another caricature. Fat, bespectacled, a naïve idealist fresh from a League of Nations job in Geneva, he is the Pierre Bezukhov of the novel, full of lofty ethical notions entirely at odds with Blackett and Webb’s business practices (the book’s polemics on colonial economic policies are conducted largely through these two characters). Yet unlike Tolstoy’s lovable, redeemable dork, he is little more than an annoyingly passive windbag and his character’s naïve idealism is never tested in any meaningful way. He is so inconsequential that Farrell’s attempt in embroiling him in a love triangle reminiscent of the one in War and Peace falls flat on its face. The Prince Andrei character, the American officer Ehrendorf, seemed to be promising, but is then summarily dispatched without much ado once his usefulness as romantic foil is used up. The Helene Kuragin proxy, Walter’s pretty daughter Joan, is just as vacuously farcical and unbelievable as her father. The weakness of the central characters makes long stretches of this 700 plus pages novel (another Tolstoyan emulation?) quite dull indeed. Which is a pity, since Farrell had obviously done his homework and was perfectly capable of conjuring a plausible, grittily exotic version of pre-war Singapore replete with amusing, well-drawn colonial supporting characters.
“There, too, when you staggered outside into the sweltering night, you would have been able to inhale that incomparable smell of incense, of warm skin, of meat cooking in coconut oil, of money and frangipani, and hair-oil and lust and sandalwood and heaven knows what, a perfume like the breath of life itself.” (less)
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Jews are stubborn.
2. Being a Jew in Princeton sucks.
3. Being impotent sucks, especially if...moreWhat I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Jews are stubborn.
2. Being a Jew in Princeton sucks.
3. Being impotent sucks, especially if you are in love with a beautiful woman.
4. A beautiful woman is built with curves like the hull of a racing boat. Women make swell friends.
5. If you suffer from domestic abuse, the best way to work it out is by going through as many men as possible in the shortest time, and then discard them like wet tissues once you’re done --- if you happen to be pretty enough to attract scores of them, that is.
6. The best way to work out existential angst is to drink your way through France and Spain.
7. The Left Bank sucks. Being an expat sucks.
8. Spain sucks, except for the bullfighting. Bullfights are swell.
9. Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bullfighters. Bulls have no balls.
10. People who run with the bulls are suckers.
Other Random Observations
No. of times the word “swell” is used: 13
No. of alcohol units consumed by the protagonist: Dunno. Too tight to count. Hic.
Hemingway might have perfectly captured the Lost Generation’s times, but he also succeeded in inducing a profound ennui in me, especially during the long stretches in which the characters (none who is terribly interesting to begin with) do nothing except drink (“I’m a little tight you know. Amazing, isn’t it? Did you see my nose?”) and flirt with each other. These passages are tediously repetitive, and the effect is like being trapped in a Left Bank café with a bunch of casual acquaintances who insist on regaling you with boring anecdotes from their boozy Spain road trip. After a while, your eyes start to glaze and your attention wanders: you begin to take in the Belle Epogue interior, the cute waiter, the way the afternoon sun casts interesting patterns on the white tablecloth --- anything that is more interesting than the dull main narrative. I just didn’t care for any of them, and that Brett woman is a biatch. Why is everyone so desperately in love with her? They told me that her former husband slept with a gun under his pillow, but who is she really? And I wish that everyone would stop whining and being glib for a while so that they can tell me more about that wonderful Basque country. But no, they always return to these tedious, unaffecting love triangles.