Tuesday, December 15, 2015


In a house next to a banana plantation resides a woman known only as "A..."

She receives a visitor named Franck, who arrives without his wife, Christiane. The house, a servant, and the surroundings are described in precise but monotonous detail, e.g. the angle of a shadow on the veranda and a squashed cockroach on the wall. Fragments of banal conversation are overheard.

There is no narrative flow, just a series of scenes presented out of order, rather like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle dumped on a table. The fragmented tale is all surfaces, and many of the bits are obsessively repetitious, as though being viewed from different angles in order to extract meaning from them.

Here's a typical passage, which occurs when A... and Franck are sitting side-by-side on the balcony having a drink:

The four hands are lying in a row, motionless. The space between A...'s left hand and Franck's right hand is approximately two inches.

It's hardly rivetting, yet the passage is brilliant and typical Robbe-Grillet with the focus on meaningless numbers. And those four hands! They suggest a point of view mysteriously unnamed in the narrative, which is told as though through slitted eyes.

At first it's not clear what the point of the story is, but after a while it appears that the central event is a trip to the city, and that it is not upcoming but has already taken place, during which an auto breakdown necessitated an overnight stay.

The story ends with no overt denouement and leaves it to the reader to make sense of what's going on. The novel's title supplies a clue. Could the story's mysterious and unnamed narrator, his presence deduced by the lacuna it leaves, be A...'s husband? Are his obsessive observations due to suspicion that the trip to the city and the breakdown of the auto were not entirely innocent?

Included is a plan of the house, which seems as pointless as the "four hands" and "two inches" noted above, yet is another example of the neurotic nature of the story. The legend is as follows:

I. Southwest pillar & its shadow at beginning of novel
II. Veranda: 1) Franck's chair, 2) A...'s chair, 2) empty chair, 5) cocktail table
III. A...'s room: 1) bed, 2) chest, 3) dressing table, 4) writing table, 5) wardrobe
IV. Office: 1) desk, 2) photograph of A...
V. Hallway
VI. Bathroom
VII. Small bedroom: 1) bed
VIII. Living/dining room: 1) sideboard, 2) table, 3) mark of centipede on wall
IX. Pantry
X. Storage room or other (not described)

It's a short novel, not much more than 100 pages, and in its elusiveness reminded me of Paul Auster, Stanislaw Lem, and the "condensed novels" of J.G. Ballard.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Coffee Table Chess

Chess Masterpieces
One Thousand Years of Extraordinary Chess Sets

Published in 2010, this is the most gorgeous of the books reviewed here, as well as the largest in terms of physical size and page count. The paper is thick and glossy, the quality of the photography excellent.

The book begins with the obligatory historical overview of the game, followed by a chapter on materials and another (the longest) entitled "War as a Theme."

Most of the remaining chapters are organized geographically (France, Germany, Russia, the Far East, etc.). The last two chapters show sets from the 20th and the 21st century. The text for the most part devotes itself to pointing out details about the sets that the reader might overlook.

Something that becomes clear as one pages through the book is that photographing chess sets is not as straight forward as it might seem. A single photo cannot provide both front and back views, while photographing pieces in the opening position will result in some being obscured by others. Thus sets in the book are posed in a variety of ways in order to do them justice.
Vice vs Virtue

Since most of the sets are owned by the author, George Dean, it is a small indulgence on his part to include one that he himself created out of wooden spools and drawerpulls. Charming, yes, but hardly a masterpiece.

That word causes more trouble in the final chapter, where one might wonder if enough time has passed for anything created since the year 2000 to be deemed a masterpiece -- especially if it lacks the sort of physical craftsmanship that make others in the book so appealing.

Chess Masterpieces is the most expensive of the books listed here, but worth it if you're at all fascinated by the physical side of the game. You can get a peek at some of the sets at World Chess Hall of Fame website -- go to Exhibitions/Exhibition Archive/2012. The site includes downloadable highlights in PDF form of the Dr. George and Vivian Dean Collection, as well as an audio tour.

10 x 12 in, 272 pp

The Art of Chess

Physically the smallest of the books discussed here, but also the most affordable, The Art of Chess by Colleen Schafroth was published in 2002 and takes a slightly broader approach than Chess Masterpieces.

The earlier chapters chart the development of the game, after which the focus is on sets and boards. The layouts are beautifully done with no two-page spread that does not have at least one full-colour illustration. The only flaw (and it is a relatively minor one) is that a few of the photos are a little fuzzy, perhaps being blown up a little larger than is advisable.

Greek, 20th century, bronze
The chapter titles are:
  • Origins of the Game
  • The First Golden Age of Chess
  • The Establishment of the Game in Europe
  • Modelling the Universe
  • Speeding Up the Game
  • Chess in the Industrial Age
  • The Twentieth Century and Beyond

According to the duskjacket's back flap, "a large part of the illustrations" in the book come from the permanent collection of chess sets at the Maryhill Museum of Art in Washington. "The collection had its origins in an exhibition held at the museum in 1957," and at present includes "over 300 sets dating from the 17th century" and "features naturalistic and abstract forms from cultures around the world."

9.5 x 9.5 in, 176 pp

Chess: A Celebration of 2000 Years

The oldest of the three books, and the one that takes the broadest approach, covering all aspects of the game, not just sets.

The illustrations are drawn from a wider source than the other books mentioned here, and include photos of chess luminaries as well as ordinary players, tournaments, outdoor games, living chess, even a game played in a swimming pool. Many of these are in B&W.

Chapters are devoted to the history and culture of the game, the board, versions of the game in other countries, discussions of the attractions and complexities of the game, a few short but famous games, and finally an overview of important players.

A collection of Knights
The chapter I enjoyed most was that on the sets themselves. Pieces from different sets are grouped together in a single spread, often across two pages -- one for kings, one for queens, and so on. It's an engaging approach, highlighting the assortment of styles and materials in a revealing and eye-catching way.

Overall it's an enjoyable read from start to finish, marred only by minor typos scattered throughout, for example the quotation from Bobby Fischer, "Chess is live."

The book is translated from the German, a collaboration by Finkenzeller, Ziehr, and Buhrer, and published in Canada in 1989 by the sadly departed Key Porter Books. Physically it is only slightly smaller than Chess Masterpieces.

9.5 x 12 in, 208 pp

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Man Who Saved Britain

A Personal Journey into the 
Disturbing World of James Bond

I stumbled across this book after a summer reading binge of Classic Spy Novels, including From Russia with Love and several by Len Deighton, who once worked on the screenplay for Thunderball.

James Bond is such a tempting target, a combination of the distasteful and the ridiculous, that it's refreshing to come across a book so unlike many others about him: his girls, his gadgets, his whatever.

Here he is gleefully carved up by Simon Winder, but it's more than simple character assassination. What gives the book some weight is the way Bond is linked with Britain's disastrous post-war decline: "As a large part of the planet slipped from Britain's grasp, one man silently maintained the country's reputation."

Winder eviscerates Bond, Fleming, Britain's colonial past, several Prime Ministers, the books and their inept sequels, the films and the actors as well as his own youthful idolization of them. Here's a sample:

Each of the Moore films is an achingly implausible attempt to pretend that nothing is wrong. In scene after scene, as he seduces Egyptian girls or quips with CIA operatives or faces off against remorseless Indian industrialists, the tension is almost intolerable -- will they or won't they all just start laughing at him? At his clothes? At his country? Will they deride the wonky, poorly engineered little gadgets that the senescent Q slips into Bond's incompetently stitched coat pocket? Will whole streets of extras collapse into gales of cruel laughter as his Lotus Esprit pops and burps along with Moore gripping the wheel, looking grimly ahead and praying the engine doesn't catch fire?

The book appeared in 2006 (before the first Daniel Craig movie was released). The approach is somewhat rambling and disjointed, and since there is no index you can't zero in on a particular novel, film or actor.

Despite the mockery, or perhaps because of it, I immediately sought out as many of the movies as I could find. Yes, not only is Bond a guilty pleasure, he is also a sort of modern deity, a character who has achieved mythological status -- a heroic, ridiculous, oversexed, shape-changing psychopath.

Monday, September 21, 2015


Intimidated by its size and reputation, I lugged this book around for most of my adult life before making a serious attempt to read it. As leviathanic as the white whale itself and every bit as elusive, it's a tale that exists on many levels. Unfortunately for Melville it was also a white elephant, sinking with scarcely a gurgle when it was first published in 1851.


Superficially it's about a man obsessed with hunting down the whale that took his leg, but there are also entire chapters that do not advance the plot, being devoted to whales and whaling, along with numerous footnotes, making it a sort of docu-novel. The reader is forewarned at the start by several pages of quotations from an eccentric variety of sources, including “The Rape of the Lock” and “Something Unpublished.”

Biblical Whaling

It's a heavily moralistic tale riddled with references to gods and religion and the bible, and lurking with symbolism and philosophical musings. It also has a mythic quality, not unlike the Odyssey, presided over by deities such as Queequeg's Yojo and the Almighty of Father Mapple, who gives a sermon about Jonah from a pulpit like the prow of a ship. Other biblical names include two of the main characters, Ahab and Ishmael, ship owners Peleg and Bildad, prophetic utterances by Elijah and Gabriel, and the vessels Rachel and Jeroboam. As the story nears its conclusion, Ahab speaks more and more like a biblical character. A typical passage:

Thou canst not tell where one drop of water or one grain of sand will be to-morrow noon; and yet with thy impotence thou insultest the sun! Science! Curse thee, thou vain toy. [Chapter 118]


For me, the most surprising thing about Moby-Dick was its humour and playfulness, beginning with Queequeg, a tattooed cannibal with whom Ishmael shares a bed at the Spouter Inn, and in whose arms he awakens in the morning. Queequeg peddles shrunken heads in Nantucket, and uses his harpoon to shave with and to spear chunks of meat at the breakfast table.

There are witty turns of phrase and flights of fancy. In a droll chapter entitled “Cetology,” the difference between whales with teeth and baleen is eschewed for one based purely on size. Thus they are categorized like books: folio whales, octavo whales, and duodecimal whales.

In a later scene Ahab speaks to Captain Boomer and Dr. Bunger, who sound like a comedy team when they exchange facetious remarks.


On one level the book is a tragedy like Lear or Macbeth with some chapters presented like scenes from a play complete with stage directions. There are successive soliloquys from Ahab, Starbuck, and Stubb, followed by a scene where the main deck becomes a stage for sailors “standing, lounging, leaning and lying in various attitudes, all singing in chorus.” (Chapters 37-40)

At times there are positively Shakespearean utterances. Here is Ahab, not sounding at all biblical:

Here I am, proud I am so rich, I could have given bid for bid with the wealthiest Praetorians at the auction of the Roman empire (which was the world's); and yet I owe for the flesh in the tongue I brag with. By heavens! I'll get a crucible, and into it, and dissolve myself down to one small, compendious vertebra. So. [Chapter 108]

Scenes with the Ahab and the ship's carpenter reminded me of Hamlet (the grave-digging scene, Ahab's phantom limb). Starbuck contemplating the sleeping Ahab is not unlike Hamlet contemplating Claudius at prayer.


The story begins with Ishmael as narrator, but is interrupted by passages in which we are privy to the thoughts and feelings of other characters. Towards the end Ishmael disappears almost entirely, being replaced by an omniscient observer, and only returns in a brief epilogue.


Moby Dick is the hero and Ahab the villain. Queequeg the most likeable character.

Readers were not ready for a cetacean hero until the 20th-century. Now, knowing how whale stocks have been devastated by whaling, it's hard not to root for Moby Dick when he is being relentlessly pursued by a madman. He was not the instigator of the conflict. How else to describe his actions except as heroic?

Ahab sees the whale as evil, but the truth is revealed by his ivory pegleg: Moby Dick's evil is really an extension of his own ungodly and monomanical self. He inaugurates the voyage with an idolatrous act -- nailing a gold coin to a mast -- and later conducts a pagan ceremony that involves the quenching with blood of a newly forged harpoon head. “I'd strike the sun if it insulted me,” he says.


One of the book's great strengths is how visual it is, which explains in part why Moby Dick the whale has become such an icon, and why Moby-Dick the book had been brought out in so many illustrated editions, not to mention other formats such as comic books, graphic novels, and movies. It's popped up in a popup book, card game, and opera, and in a fantastic retelling (Railsea) by China Mieville in which giant moles are harpooned from trains and the captain of one of them is obsessed with hunting an ivory-coloured mole that took his arm.

Farther afield Starbuck is memorialized in the coffee chain, as well as in (along with Boomer) Battlestar Galactica.

When I re-read the book, and I will, I want to use an illustrated edition, such the Rockwell Kent version published in 1930. (It has something in the order of 300 illustrations, 23 of them full-page.)


Eight Great Dicks
Rockwell Kent & Evan Dahm
Moby Dick - or The Card Game 
Online audio version (a different reader for each of the 135 chapters)

A Natural History of the Ocean's Most Magnificent and Mysterious Creature

Before tackling Moby-Dick I imagined that Dr. Johnson's comment about Paradise Lost would be applicable, but I was wrong. I not only wanted to read it again, I also wanted to know more about whales and whaling. In this regard The Great Sperm Whale by Richard Ellis is the perfect companion to Melville's masterpiece.

Ellis is an artist and marine biologist who's written numerous books about denizens of the sea. Published in 2011, The Great Sperm Whale was clearly inspired by Moby-Dick, and is more substantial than the 11 chapters, one appendix, and 368 pages might suggest. There are 16 colour plates and numerous black-and-white illustrations throughout.

In addition to the natural history of sperm whales, it covers the evolution of whales, a history of whaling (including a chapter called “The War on Whales”), and conservation efforts. Chapter 2 is devoted to “Mr. Melville's Whale” and gives an overview of Melville's sources, Moby-Dick's critical reception, and notable editions. He also mentions some of the novels, music, art, and movies the book has inspired. Melville and Moby Dick are also referenced in subsequent chapters.

One of the things I was curious about was Melville's factual accuracy regarding whales. Ellis tells us that through Melville's reading and personal experience he knew as much about whales as anyone else in the 19th century, though the overall knowledge at the time was pretty thin. What is important from a reader's standpoint is that any inaccuracies are irrelevent, especially considering Melville's penchant for playfulness, hyperbole, and mythologizing.

On Sperm Whales

  • “the largest predator that has ever lived”
  • “the largest brain of any animal that ever lived”
  • “the loudest sounds made by any living creature”
  • “the biggest nose in history”

They are known to dive as deep as 3700 feet, and capable of immobilizing their prey with “laserlike focused sound beams that emanate from complex components in its nose.” This ability is crucial for hunting in the abyssal depths, and especially for prey like squid, which are faster and more agile.

They are also bottom feeders, apparently using their narrow underslung lower jaw as a plough. They have teeth only in their lower jaw, and unlike other whales have only a single nostril.

The nose may take up as much as a third of their total length. So when a sperm whale sank the Essex, it did it by ramming with its nose.

In the stomach of one dead sperm whale was found a squid weighing 405 pounds, and in another the mutilated body of a Newfoundland sealer.

On Moby-Dick

  • Moby-Dick (hyphenated) is the title, Moby Dick (unhyphenated) is the whale.
  • “Moby Dick is the single most famous animal in American literature.”
  • Moby-Dick was written and published at the zenith of the world-wide sperm whale fishery; its home port of New Bedford was the richest city per capita in America.”


Entitled “The Adventures of a Whale Painter,” it gives an account of Ellis's development as an artist, which is rather apt since Melville himself devotes three chapters to paintings and other representations of whales. So how good is Ellis the artist? One look at the beautiful dust jacket is all you need.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Tempest

"O brave new world."

I never realized the irony in those words until I saw them spoken by innocent Miranda when she first sees Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian, all guilty of treacherous behaviour.

The play, mounted this summer by Two Planks and a Passion, a small theatre company in rural Nova Scotia, is a wonderful choice for an outdoor performance.

The setting is both airy and intimate. The stage is a small patch of ground, yet later expands to a size far greater than any indoor theatre. The wings are tall grass and players enter from all directions. Often they are close enough to touch, yet other times they pop up unexpectedly from the greenery, or can be seen cavorting merrily in the distance.

The play gets off to a slow start due to an understandable decision to skip the first scene, which takes place on board a storm-tossed ship. Thus the weight of the opening is borne by windy Prospero and patient Miranda, but once the backstory is gotten out of the way and the other characters appear, the performance overflows with energy.

Prospero halts Ariel in her tracks with a wave of his hand, and tumbles her about with a twist of his fist. Ariel plays tricks on those from the ship with gusto, particularly in the scene where she puts words into the mouth of Trinculo.

The stagecraft just gets better and better as the play proceeds. The props, almost entirely of driftwood, are suddenly brought to life when wielded by the cast to suggest the magical beings inhabiting the island. At a time when movies are over-burdened with special effects, it is wonderful to see such magic created before a natural green screen.

Prospero commands the audience's attention with his powerful voice, by making repeated eye contact with audience members, and even by joining them in the bleachers.

Ariel's singing and catlike performance add zest to the play. Her expressive mobile face is a delight to watch.

Caliban too is an audience favourite. He is Ariel's opposite number, his earthy animal nature suggested by a muddy face and furry vest. The low comedy provided by him and his drunken conspirators, Trinculo and Stephano, generates much laughter.

Miranda has the necessary sweet innocence, while Ferdinand carries off an amusing sight gag that reveals the state of his arousal.

Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian are portrayed by women, necessitating slight name changes, thus becoming Alonsa, Antonia, and Sebastia. (In Julie Taymor's film version, Prospero became Prospera. Can Caliba be far behind?)

The costumes of the nobles are especially good, suggesting Medieval glamour with a touch of steampunk, and contrast nicely with Prospero, who is dressed like a peasant and goes barefoot throughout the play.

 If you're in the vicinity there are still a few days left to catch the play.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Classic Spy Novels Revisited

Summer brought an urge for light reading, so I looked up some old favourites in the spy genre, representative volumes from four British authors who made a major impact on the genre. Remarkably they're are still in print despite being more than a half-century old. At times they seem like historical novels giving us a glimpse into a (perhaps deceptively) simpler past.

For example, when Bond flies to Istanbul on a Vickers Viscount, he does not have his weaponized attaché case inspected before boarding, and lights up a smoke as soon as the seatbelt sign is off.

In the Deighton books, [Harry Palmer] still has his milk delivered by a milkman, and his boss is one of the most powerful men in England because he has an IBM computer. Berlin is still a divided city.

Eric Ambler

Ambler’s heroes tend to be ordinary people. They do not work in the intelligence community and get drawn into dangerous situations against their will.

Ambler's most well-known novel is probably The Mask of Dimitrios (aka A Coffin for Dimitrios), which came out in 1939. It begins in Istanbul, takes the reader through Smyrna, Athens, Sofia, Geneva, and ends with a neat twist in Paris. On re-reading it, though, I was rather disappointed by the number of times that the protagonist is reduced to the role of a listener, as others fill in the backstory of Dimitrios Makropoulos, a shadowy criminal whose body is found in the Bosporus at the beginning of the book.

Two other novels written around the same time are better: Cause for Alarm (1938) and Journey in Fear (1940). Alarm takes place in Fascist Italy where an out-of-work British engineer fills in for a murdered predecessor, and is inexorably drawn into a dangerous scheme by a general who rouges his cheeks.

Fear, like Dimitrios, begins in Istanbul with a minor role once again played by the head of the Turkish secret police, Colonel Haki. WWII has just begun, but is still in the Phoney War phase where nothing much is happening in Western Europe.

As in Alarm, the protagonist is a British engineer, this time doing munitions work for the Turkish navy. An attempt is made on his life, which results in Haki taking charge of his return to England by arranging passage for him on an Italian freighter. There are a few other passengers as well, and of course several of them are not what they seem.

When the ship stops in Athens another person comes aboard, and suddenly Graham finds himself sitting across the dinner table from the man who tried to shoot him in Istanbul. (His reflections upon guns at this point are particularly ironic.)

The ship has become a trap. Desperate to escape he makes a deal with a German agent, and they disembark at Genoa. The story reaches its conclusion on a train to Paris.

What I enjoyed most about Journey into Fear were the droll characterizations, the international cast, and the liberal use of foreign phrases (French, Italian, Turkish). There are some delicious twists in store for the reader, and the writing is first rate.

When Ambler passed away, the NYTimes referred to him as “the thriller writer who elevated the genre to literature.”

Ian Fleming

The first Bond book and the first issue of Playboy magazine came out in the same year, 1953. From Russia with Love, the fifth in the series, arrived in 1957 and is often mentioned as one of the best. It's more action-packed than the other books discussed here, boasts exotic locations (Istanbul, the Orient Express) and has a surprise ending. There are also some pretty turns of phrase, such as “the silver spray of a bicycle bell.”

It is also rather unusual in that Bond is absent from the first third of the book, which is devoted to SMERSH's plan to eliminate and disgrace him. Fleming takes great care in setting up his adversary, Donovan Grant, aka Red Granitsky. Their similarities are enlightening.

Bond has a “cruel mouth” and “cold arrogant eyes,” while Grant has “cruel lips” and eyes “empty as oil slicks.” Bond smokes Morland cigarettes with three gold rings at the end, while Grant smokes gold-tipped Troika cigarettes. Bond's boss is an admiral known only as M, the head of British secret service, while Grant's is G, a general who is the head of SMERSH. Bond and Grant are professional assassins, Grant being the chief executioner for SMERSH, while Bond as 007 has a licence to kill. Both are equipped with gadgets that they use on each other in the fight scene on the train.

There are a few differences. Grant has no interest in sex and is a moon-driven serial-killer, whereas Bond is a womanizer who, despite being “tarnished with years of treachery and ruthlessness and fear,” dislikes killing in cold blood.

A nice touch is the way books are used as signposts. Bond packs The Mask of Dimitrios when he flies to Istanbul. The book Grant reads on the Orient Express is War and Peace, within which is a gun fired by an electrical battery. But most telling of all is the favourite book of Bond's love interest, Tatiana Romanova, A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov. Bond reminds her of the hero, Pechorin, a Byronic figure who likes to fight and gamble. What is not stated is that Pechorin describes himself as a “moral cripple.”

On the negative side the book has more than a whiff of xenophobia. The loudspeakers in the airport at Rome “jabber.” Turkey is slagged as “a country of stunted little men,” the Balkans smell of “very old sweat and cigarette smoke and cabbage.” The gypsies are savage and primitive.

Worse is the misogyny. Bond's friend, Darko Kerim (a version of Colonel Haki), remarks that women dream of being dragged off to a cave and raped. Rosa Klebb, a powerful member of the SMERSH hierarchy, is described as a repulsive toadlike creature. Two gypsy women fight over a man and very quickly tear each other's clothes off. And when Bond and Tatiana are alone together on the train, Bond pulls her head back by the hair and kisses her “cruelly.”

When the book ends, Bond is wearing Grant's watch.

Len Deighton

Deighton's first novel, The Ipcress File, was an overnight sensation when published in 1962. In a new introduction Deighton mentions that its publication “coincided with the arrival of the first James Bond films,” and that critics used him “as a blunt instrument to batter Ian Fleming about the head.” Deighton, by the way, knew Fleming and recently produced an article entitled “James Bond: My Long and Eventful Search for His Father,” which is available for the Amazon Kindle. 

Ipcress kicked off a series of four books featuring a nameless hero, whom I'll refer to as [Harry Palmer], the name given to him in the movies. Like Bond, he is a professional spy. He's spent three years in Military Intelligence, six months with the CIA, and is now working as a civilian with “the smallest and most important of the Intelligence Units - WOOC(P).” What the acronym stands for is never revealed, but it has a mocking ring to it.

The books are told in the first person, which allows a greater freedom for sarcasm, a key feature of the series. Where Bond is loyal and patriotic, [Palmer] is cheeky and impertinent. “Forgive me,” [Palmer] says to his boss, “if my lack of ignorance is an embarrassment to you.”

[Palmer] is more intellectual than Bond, but also more down-to-earth. He likes sherry, smokes Gauloises, and collects books on military history. He knows his Shakespeare and is able to quote from Paradise Lost. And although there are action sequences in Ipcress, [Palmer] also has to wrestle with more bureaucratic red tape than Bond. His inbox is lockable.

Another major difference is that the [Palmer] books are far more convoluted than the Bond books. Purposely so. As [Palmer] says in the Prologue to Ipcress, “It's a confusing story. I'm in a very confusing business.” The confusion, I think, is a reflection of the blurred loyalties and dubious moral grounds inhabited by people in the spy business.

So, Ipcress is a very different read from Russia with a lot to recommend it, including some fiendish reversals. I won't mention the main one, but in the end [Palmer] finds himself working with one of the villains he was pursuing, and aids a SMERSH agent in fleeing the country.

Nevertheless, my interest flagged when [Palmer] went abroad, first to Lebanon and then to a Pacific atoll, where events seemed laboured and not very believable, so I tackled the remaining books in the series. Horse Under Water (1963) involves opium smuggling and a sunken German submarine off the coast of Portugal. Funeral in Berlin (1964) -- I enjoyed this one the most -- has [Palmer] helping a Russian colonel to defect. And Billion Dollar Brain (1966) takes [Palmer] to Finland, America, and finally Russia. 

Deighton went on to publish many more spy novels, and while I haven't tried any of them yet, I can highly recommend two of his non-fiction books: Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain, and Blood, Tears, and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II.  Both are superb.

John LeCarré

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold came out in 1963, a year after Ipcress. When I first read it I was convinced le Carré would never write another spy novel. Why would he try when this one was so perfect?

Even now, re-reading it many years later, I could scarcely put it down despite knowing how it ends. It was like watching the Titanic steam toward its iceberg. The moral ambiguity hinted at in the previous books reaches its fullest expression here, and reflects the pessimism of the Cold War.

The hero is Alec Leamas, the burnt-out head of British Intelligence in Berlin, who has just seen his last East German agent shot down as he tried to cross into West Berlin. His opposite number is Hans-Dieter Mundt, a ruthless killer whose description (“the blank, hard face beneath the flaxen hair”) makes him sound like Donovan Grant elevated to a supervisory position.

When Leamas is released by the service he takes to drink and ends up in jail. The lone bright spot in his life is a girlfriend he acquires, ironically a member of the Communist Party. Yet he remains embittered and is recruited by the opposition. He is taken to the Netherlands where he meets a “kindly, plump woman” who reminds him of “an old aunt he once had who beat him for wasting string" -- a clever foreshadowing of future betrayals when the British are revealed as scarcely less principled than their adversaries. Here is Leamas's boss, Control:

“We do disagreeable things so that ordinary people here and everywhere can sleep safely in their beds at night. Is that too romantic? Of course, we occasionally do very wicked things”; he grinned like a schoolboy. “And in weighing up the moralities, we go in for dishonest comparisons; after all, you can't compare the ideals of one side with the methods of the other, can you, now?”

Le Carré, who worked for MI5 and MI6, positions his Intelligence headquarters at Cambridge Circus. It is frequently referred to simply as the Circus, which surely has an ironic connotation, as does the name of one of his recurring characters, George Smiley.

If Thomas Hardy had lived long enough to write a spy story, it could scarcely have been more tragic or more powerful than this.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Einstein Wrote Back

My Life in Physics

Enter the bare-knuckle world of battling theoretical physicists, whose cartoonlike antics emulate “the antisocial behaviour of the electron.”

Author John Moffat is a self-taught theoretical physicist who was admitted to a doctoral program at Cambridge without having previously attended university.

In the course of his unorthodox career he met some of the biggest names in 20th century physics, including Bohr, Dirac, Pauli, Salam, Schrodinger, Heisenberg, Higgs, Gell-Mann – Nobel winners all – as well as Hoyle, Penrose, Oppenheimer, and others.

The first thing he learned from these giants was that rude, boorish, and abrasive behaviour was acceptable. Schrodinger called Einstein an old fool and Bohr accused him of being an alchemist. Hoyle despised the Big Bang theory, Pauli openly jeered at other physicists, Gell-Mann planted his big feet on Moffat’s knees under a restaurant table, Oppenheimer tried to poison his supervisor at Cambridge, and Dirac was scolded by his wife: “Paul, you are so stupid! You can’t even put on your own trousers.”

But it's not just a gossipy narrative. Moffat pays tribute to the many physicists who helped further his unusual career, and explains in simple terms how his life’s work bucked the “herd instinct in physics” by developing theories that did not invoke dark matter, dark energy, or the Higgs particle.*

Perhaps most shocking of all is his “heretical suggestion” that the speed of light is not constant.

Remarkable Childhood

The opening chapters are among the best in the book. He grew up in Great Britain during the war and narrowly escaped death during the blitz. A peripatetic upbringing resulted in his attending 13 schools with instruction in two different languages – English and Danish. When tested for his suitability to attend university, he failed miserably.

After highschool he worked at a number of deadend jobs until he developed an interest in abstract painting and spent a year in Paris being tutored by Serge Poliakoff. On returning home in Copenhagen a couple of popular science books led to an infatuation with physics and “strange visions of the structure of the universe and the fabric of spacetime.”

In a single year he taught himself enough math and physics to find what he considered a flaw in Einstein’s quest for a unified field theory. When he gave a talk about it at the Niels Bohr Institute, he was ridiculed for his choice of topic. Stung, he wrote to Einstein, whose response provided the title for this book. He was only 19 years old.

Canadian Connection

After working in England, the US, and at CERN in Europe, he came to Canada and lived in Toronto for 40 years while working in the U of T physics department. He is currently Professor Emeritus there, as well as Adjunct Professor of physics at the University of Waterloo, and a member of the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, where he now lives.

Einstein Wrote Back
came out in 2010 and was shortlisted for the Lane Anderson Award for the best science writing in Canada. It includes eight pages of photos, mostly of his famous colleagues.

* Two years after the book was published, the Higgs boson was finally found by CERN's Large Hadron** Collider.

** Not Hardon, as Maclean’s and other media sources reported, to the delight of many.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Carpet Sahib

“The tiger is a large-hearted gentleman,” Jim Corbett wrote in his intro to Man-Eaters of Kumaon.

It sounds Hemingwayish, but there's none of Ernest's macho posturing in Corbett's writings. In fact, he comes across as a very large-hearted gentleman himself.


His parents were born in India and after the Mutiny settled in Nainital, a "hill station" in the heavily forested Kumaon region of the Himalayas of northern India. Corbett was born there in 1875.

His first firearm (received at the age of eight) was a double-barrelled muzzle-loading shotgun with a split barrel and cracked stock. By ten he was lugging around a .450 Martini, a rifle capable of stopping an elephant. He was still a boy when he shot his first leopard.


At the age of 17 he left home to work, shouldering responsibility for his widowed mother, sister, half-sister, and three young children (a brother, a niece, and a nephew).

He found work with the Bengal & North-Western Railway, first in charge of a large labour force felling timber, then transshipping goods by steamer across the Ganges at Mokameh Ghat. He worked there for 22 years. On his holidays he hunted and fished, and returned to Nainital to visit family and develop business prospects there.


The railway refused to release him to fight in the Boer War, and by the time WWI broke out he was 38 and considered too old to fight. Instead he was given a wartime commission as Captain in charge of raising a labour corps which he took to France.  

When WWII arrived, he was in his mid-sixties. As before he contributed by recruiting a pioneer corps, and then by travelling to various bases in India to lecture troops on junglecraft. In aid of the latter, he crossed into Burma in 1944 to study flora and fauna there.


He left his railway job at the conclusion of WWI and returned to Nainital, where during the 1920s he focused on business matters. These included a store that his mother and sister helped run, and real estate interests that included a farm in Tanganyika, which he visited every year, and the improving of a run-down village that he had bought.


Man-eating tigers were responsible for killing many hundreds of people and inflicting a reign of terror over wide areas, sometimes for years. He hunted his first ones while still working for the railway. More followed in the 1930s, but by then he was becoming conservation-minded and more interested in photography than hunting. The first nature preserve in India was established near Naini Tal (and renamed after Corbett in 1957).

By the time he retired from business, he had been awarded the OBE and made some very high-placed friends, including the Viceroy of India. Man-Eaters of Kumaon was published in 1944 and became an international success. In 1946 he was awarded a CIE, Companion of the Indian Empire.


Yet he and his sister Maggie were nervous about the coming Independence, and in 1947 left India for Kenya. Over the next 10 years more books came out, until he died in 1957. He was buried in Nyeri near the tomb of Baden-Powell.


He was quiet, honest, superstitious, patriotic, philanthropic, extraordinarily brave, and had remarkable physical stamina. He lived simply, and was held in great respect by the “hill folk” of Kumaon, but often looked down on by other Europeans.

He was white but had cast off his heritage in order to associate with and side with the native. He ate native food, followed native customs and religions, spoke a number of dialects fluently, understood the 'Indian mind' and was generally at home in his supposedly alien environment. To cap it all, he knew his way around the forests better than many a native tracker.

He never married, mainly due to the isolation of his railway job, and the efforts of his mother and sister, who were jealously protective of him.

Carpet Sahib

The title comes from a local mispronunciation, “Carpet” instead of “Corbett.”

The book has an index and a few appendices but no photos or map. In the Acknowledgements over 60 people are named, some of whom knew Corbett. In a few places there are quotes from his own letters and from those who knew him.

One omission is any mention of Maggie's final years. Even a single sentence would have sufficed. She was an important part of Corbett's life.

A few readers have posted critical comments on Amazon, but I got the impression they were expecting an exciting account rather than the usual dry detail of a biography. Others have claimed the book blackens Corbett's name, which I assume refers to the following:
  • suggesting he had an affair with the wife of his friend Ibbotson
  • questioning his account of the Chowgarh tigress as “far-fetched” 
  • accusing him of “dirty" and “unsportsmanlike” tactics (poison, set-guns, and an 80-lb trap) in going after the Rudraprayag leopard
Of these criticisms, it seems to me that only the last one has merit. The leopard, after all, had killed more than 125 people over a period of eight years.

    Wednesday, April 29, 2015

    The Long Day Wanes

    Playful erudition, pungent description, and savage satire characterize the first three novels published by Anthony Burgess.

    They form a trilogy that draws on his time spent as an education officer in Malaya and Borneo during 1956-60, when Communist rebels were trying to force out the British.

    Most of the characters are governed solely by self-interest. No race goes unscathed -- Malay, Tamil, Chinese, or Caucasian. Even when not undone by their own faults, Burgess punishes them with ironic situations beyond their control.

    The central character is a British teacher named Victor Crabbe, whose first wife drowned when their car plunged into a river. This event happened before the trilogy begins but reverberates throughout it, beginning with Crabbe's fear of water and reluctance to own another vehicle.

    Time for a Tiger

    “It's time for a Tiger” is a slogan for a brand of beer brewed in Singapore. For Nabby Adams, it's always time for a Tiger. He's a police lieutenant in charge of transport, and a fine comic character always in debt and always in search of a drink. In one of the most amusing episodes in the book, he sells a vehicle he doesn't own to a man who doesn't want one -- Crabbe, who caves in to appease his second wife, Fenella, who doesn't share his enthusiasm for Malaya.

    Most Brits are portrayed as arrogant idiots with little regard for the country or its people. Nabby's boss and Crabbe's headmaster are both yawners, one “showing back fillings and a softly rising uvula,” the other “probably yawned in bed with his wife.” It's indicative of their intelligence and sense of commitment.

    Crabbe on the other hand is a well-meaning bloke, but more devoted to work than his personal life, which includes a bored wife and a neglected mistress. Complications ensue when Alladad Kahn (Nabby's loyal underling), takes an interest in Fenella, and Crabbe's mistress tries to recapture his affection by means of a love potion, paying his flamboyantly gay houseboy to deliver it.

    Towards the end there is an attack by Communist guerillas, a disastrous farewell party for the headmaster, and a winning lottery ticket that enables Nabby Adams to return to the country where he is most at home -- India. 

    “I don't bath very much here, but I had a bloody good wash on the boat coming over."

    The Enemy in the Blanket

    Crabbe is now a paunchy headmaster at a different school, though he is soon challenged by a senior master, Jagnathan, who had been promised the position. He threatens to expose Crabbe as a Communist sympathizer, an allegation that is false until Crabbe discovers that his Chinese cook, Ah Wing, whom “he once caught eating a live mouse,” has been secretly sending leftovers to the guerillas.

    Crabbe's former classmate, the financially hard-pressed Rupert Hardman, converts to Islam in order to marry a wealthy twice-divorced Malay woman, who disproves “the European superstition...that the women of the East are down-trodden.”

    In a typically ironic episode Crabbe and Hardman visit a dying Muslim, Mahalingam, who has requested the last rites from a Catholic priest. When he recovers, Mahalingam denounces the priest to Islamic authorities, resulting in the priest's ejection from the country.

    On the romantic front, Crabbe's marriage is floundering again, and he ends up bedding Anne Talbot, wife of the State Education Officer. At the same time a wealthy potentate called the Abang, who has his feet bathed in goat's milk, decides to acquire Crabbe's car and wife.

    Subsequent events include Fenella's testing of Crabbe's love by pretending to drown, and the Abang sending a Falstaffian policeman to protect the Crabbes.

    If you continue to abuse me, I shall call the police." The word started something off in his slow mind. "Police. By god, I am the police."

    Beds in the East

    Independence is nigh and the British are pulling out, leaving the Malays, Tamils and Chinese to squabble among themselves in ways that are amusingly petty and vindictive. Keeping track of them, however, can be challenging for the reader.

    The Tamils include Arumugam, Kularatnam, Parameswaran, Sockalingam, Sundralingam, Vythilingam. The Malays: Nik Hassan, Syed Hassan, Syed Omar, Azman, Hamzah , Zainab, Maimunah. The Chinese: Robert Loo, Loo Kam Fatt, Lim Cheng Po.

    A symbolically deluded character is Rosemary Michael, a much pursued woman who longs to marry an Englishman. One of her suitors is a Turk who reminds her that he's European (“I sick man of Europe”) and repeatedly enjoins her to “come make jolly time.” When she finally goes to bed with him, he falls asleep.

    Crabbe -- now middle-aged with a receding hair line -- is repeatedly turned to for assistance, though his generosity is never rewarded with gratitude. Eventually he is sent upcountry to report on the death of a schoolmaster, and meets a loopy anthropologist who criticizes him for laughing at butterflies, and a bibulous beer salesman who knows Nabby Adams.

    More significantly he also meets an American “linguistician” who provides an update on Fenella, now in England and a published poet who lectures on Malaya; and (in a play on their last names) George Costard, from whom he learns a devastating piece of information about his first wife.

    It was the job of the British to help the Malays. That was well known, that was in the history books. And if Crabbe was slow in helping, there was always blackmail.


    The novels are enriched by the author's polymathic command of music, languages, and literature. There is a Malay glossary at the end, and you may need to check an English dictionary for words like bathycolpous, edentulous, exophthalmic, and rhotacismus.

    In a brief review of these novels, Bernard Bergonzi had this to say about Burgess: "Among contemporary writers no one is blacker, or more comic."

    Wednesday, March 25, 2015


    Notorious when it was first published in 1976, and notorious again today after a cover image (not this one) went viral, Bear by Marian Engel has just been reissued.

    The novel feels much more substantial than one might expect from its 141 pages. The backstory covers several generations, rather like a mini-epic in the manner of Robertson Davies.

    There are frequent literary and cultural references to bears, and the important semi-wilderness setting is captured deftly and without fuss.

    The characters are few but indelible. The protagonist Lou is a book-sheltered woman who meets a likeable rustic named Homer, and an ancient native woman who offers this advice:

    "Shit with the bear. He like you, then. Morning, you shit, he shit. Bear lives by smell. He like you."

    Combine all these elements with perfect pacing and an aura of danger, and you'll have an idea of just how good this book is.


    The story is a modern fairy tale with a feminist subtext. The men have iconic names reflecting their status as males: Colonel Cary, Joe King, and the Director.

    Homer's name suggests his role as a folksy patriarch, but despite his helpfulness he's not much different from other men in Lou's life. The way she resolves an issue with him is a key aspect of the story.

    The three most important female characters all have masculine names. In addition to Lou, there is Lucy Leroy the native woman, and in a particularly clever touch the daughter of Colonel Cary, her given name bestowed upon her at birth to circumvent a will. Thus, she is Colonel Jocelyn, a tough capable woman "with big hands like a man" who could skin a lynx.

    The bear, on the other hand, has no name. But it too is male, and in a scene I thought particularly humorous, acts like a typical guy:  

    She put honey on herself and whispered to him, but once the honey was gone he wandered off, farting and too soon satisfied.

    The Cover

    When Bear first came out in Canada, the hardcover's dust jacket was bland and the paperback's cover lurid.

    In reissuing the book, the publisher came up with a different cover for the trade paperback, and in a clever publicity gimmick invited several artists to submit alternative designs. You can see them on the publisher's website.

    For Canadian Notes & Queries, artist Joe Ollmann created an illustration in comic-book style. You can see the full page by clicking here or here.

    Bear in Mind

    Animals are fascinating, but their Disneyfication sometimes blinds people to their potentially dangerous nature. I myself have seen people do very stupid things, like feeding polar bears by hand at the Churchill dump.

    People, don't be stupid.

    If you want to get close to bears, do it by reading. Here are a couple of books that I recommend. In The Bear Went Over the Mountain by William Kotzwinkle, a bear named Hal Jam becomes a famous author. And in a dark fantasy called Shardik by Richard Adams (he of Watership Down fame), a bear is worshipped as a deity by a primitive society.

    Friday, February 27, 2015

    The Odyssey

    A Pop-Up Book

    Even the simplest pop-up books are fun, but when done by an artist like Sam Ita they bring smiles to readers of all ages. He's produced several adaptations of classic texts like Frankenstein, Moby Dick and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea.  

    Pop-ups, hidden flaps, and pull-tabs provide a sense of discovery, and engage the reader in a way that's almost magical. Often it's necessary to go through the books more than once to uncover all their secrets. (Somehow I kept bypassing the Trojan horse.)

    Here's a look at the more spectacular pages in Sam's version of The Odyssey. What fun!

    The sack of Troy
    Escape from the Cyclops
    Scylla attacks
    Zeus intervenes

    Saturday, January 31, 2015

    Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

    On the Tracks of the 
    Great Railway Bazaar

    “Writing about travel,” says Theroux, is “the nearest I will come to autobiography.” This book seems more personal than others because it reprises the 1973 journey that first brought him fame, The Great Railway Bazaar.

    Back then he didn't mention the “domestic turmoil” the trip had caused, but in 2004 he “relived much of the pain.” Railway Bazaar, he tells us now, was written “in an agony of suffering.”

    Other personal details include a gouty knee, double cataract surgery, his mother's verdict on his first book (“trash”). He reports the criticism of his former students in Singapore “who said, in so many words, what a horse's ass I had been,” and “rubbished” him “for having been a poor teacher.”

    He provides updates on two of the more memorable characters from Bazaar. Molesworth, who later complained that Theroux had not used his real name, and Mr. Bernard, who read about himself with much pleasure and whose hotel profited from being mentioned in the book. Theroux is fondly remembered by Mr. Bernard's son: “We talk about you all the time. We have a copy of your book. You were up there in room eleven.” Theroux adds:

    Nothing like this had ever happened to me among my own family.  Was this a motivation, the embrace of strangers, in my becoming a traveller? ... Without daring to anticipate such an event, it was the sort of reunion I had hoped for when I set out to repeat my trip.


    Author photos from the two books
    In 1973 Theroux was a minor novelist. In 2004 he's an established author who's asked to give talks in Istanbul, Ankara, Ashbagat, and Singapore.

    His works are everywhere: Russian translations in Moscow bookstores, bootleg copies in Phnom Penh, and a guidebook that dismisses his views as “caustic.”

    On the train he notices a fellow traveller reading Mosquito Coast, and in India chats with Prince Charles about the premiere of the movie based on it. His Singapore novel, Saint Jack, and the movie based on it, are finally available there.


    One of the great pleasures of Theroux's travel books is how literary-minded they are. He always serves up a wide variety of quotes and references. A nice example: Thoreau's mention of ice from Walden pond ending up in India.

    He hobnobs with other writers: Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shaka in Turkey, Haruki Murakami and Pico Iyer in Japan. Their conversations are delightful, their literary gossip fascinating especially when the subject is other travel writers. Jan Morris is esteemed, Chatwin “a boaster,” and Hunter Thompson “one of the most timid travellers I've ever known.”

    In Sri Lanka he visits Arthur Clarke, “so frail, so vague, his mind drifting,” his appearance “like the sort of alien he had described in his prose fantasies.” He also visits the bungalow where Leonard Woolf lived, and glimpses the small island where Paul Bowles wrote his Tangier novel, The Spider's House.


    American foreign policy dictates some route changes. In 1973 he visited Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, but in 2004 he swings around them via Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. 

    In 1973 the Vietnam war was still raging, which prevented him from reaching northern Vietnam and Cambodia. Now he is able to visit Hanoi and Angkor Wat, and talks to former soldiers from both sides. Two Viet Cong vets, now construction workers, share a joint with him.

    He quotes an alarming statistic from British historian J.M. Roberts: “a heavier tonnage of bombs dropped on North Vietnam than on Germany and Japan together in the entire Second World War.” In Japan, Murakami supplies this alarming fact: “the firebombing of Tokyo...killed more people than the atom bombs.”


    Stuffed grape leaves in Turkey and “an eggplant dish so delicious its name is a catchphrase, imam bayildi, 'the imam fainted'”

    Spinach pies in Turkmenistan and pigeon eggs in Uzbekistan

    ...amok, one of Cambodia's delicious national dishes, the snakehead [fish] simmered in coconut milk with spices”

    Vietnamese eel soup (recipe included) and “snake wine (each bottle with a coiled cobra pickled inside)”

    “Woodka” and “pissing dumplings” and bags of smoked omul in Russia


    Thanks to the Internet and Google Earth, there has never been a better time to be an armchair traveller. I was particularly keen to check out the following places:

    Chatrapathi Sivaji Terminus in Mumbai
    “one of the grandest railway stations in the world”
    Kuala Lumpur Railway Station
    “a marvel of good design...any American city would have been proud to have such a station”

    Palace of Congresses in Bucharest
    “an impressively ugly and gigantic example of megalomaniacal architecture”

    Shimoly Station in Tashkent
    “one of the largest railway stations I saw on my entire trip, possibly the grandest, lovely even”

    Todai-ji Temple in Japan
    “this 18th century structure was the single most imposing building I saw in the whole of Japan”

    Vladivostok Railway Station
    “a weirdly pretentious example of Russian railway design”

    Cities & Countries

    “a city without benches, the subtle message being: keep walking”

    "I was not prepared for people so poor to look so beautiful...even as beggars they had dignity”

    a “wolfish landscape”

    “...the paradox, that India's poor were her wealth”

    “one of the most...hospitable cities in the world”

    “...perhaps the only country I passed through where I met nothing but generosity and kindness. And the Burmese were the most ill-treated, worst governed, belittled, and persecuted of any people I met...”

    “one big bazaar of ruthless capitalism”

    “good manners are suspect” and blaming "a national vice”

    “more machine than city”

    “an emptiness of lizards and a landscape like cat litter“

    “travel in Vietnam for an American was a lesson in humility”

    “one of the Siberian centers of skinhead gang activity”


     “Travellers are always inventing the country they're travelling through.”