Taking Stock of 2009: Books

Instead of a straight-up best-of list, a slightly more eclectic look back at what I read in 2009. Best large Russian book, Tolstoy’s big one; best small Russian book (and most scurrilous of any nationality) Moscow to the End of the Line by Venedikt Erofeev. Best fantasy, parts two through four of the Princess of Roumania series. Most overrated, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Best SF, Brasyl by Ian McDonald. Best non-fiction, The Discovery of France by Graham Robb. Most off-putting but finished anyway, Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming. Best surprises, The Final Reflection by John M. Ford (along with his How Much for Just the Planet, the first two Star Trek novels I’ve read in a quarter century) and Bleachers by John Grisham. Best look behind the scenes of history (also best dissection of a fellow national leader), To the Castle and Back by Vaclav Havel.

Complete list (in order read) is below the fold. Links are to previous writing about the book or author on AFOE. See also 2006 and 2007.
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AFOE’s trip on the Orient Express

How did we not blog this earlier? The Orient Express has made its last trip. In fact, this is one of those events that has happened and re-happened; the last train that actually made the trip from Paris to Istanbul/Sirkeci did it in 1977, and most people will now associate the name with the luxury London-Venice cruise train that Sea Containers set up in the 1980s. But the one we’re talking about is the one that actually had the title attached to the path in the railways’ working timetables.

By the finish, it only did Paris-Budapest and then only Paris-Vienna, which is fine but hardly the Orient. (Seat61 informs me that the through Paris-Budapest and Paris-Bucharest cars were dropped in June, 2001.) To do the full route, you had to make a connection in Budapest, which could be harder than you think as that city has almost as many conflicting major railway stations as London. Also, trains from the West frequently arrived at the Southern Station there, just as the late Orient Express used the Westbahnhof in Vienna.

I took the train in 2002, taking advantage of a rare moment of reduced poverty to visit my partner and her dad in Paris; Paul Theroux, who did the full Paris-Istanbul trek in 1974, remarked that it was indeed murder on the Orient Express. I wouldn’t be quite so harsh, although had you asked me on the outward trip I might have been. Showing up in good time at the station, I found the train, a gaggle of Hungarian rolling stock, lurking in a dark corner and immediately went to look for things to eat, drink, and read during the trip – it didn’t look promising. I had a bunk in a couchette; on the way there, I noticed the route card on the end of the carriage read “EN-262: Orient-Express” and cheered up somewhat. (In fact, I’ve still got the route card. The Austrian Federal Railway can sue me.)

Actually, that version of the Orient Express was hitched to the evening Vienna-Salzburg as far as Salzburg, so there was in fact a dining car and it made reasonable speed. The problems began when I tried to sleep; there was actually a cello in the compartment, and Americans kept getting on and off the train at every intermediate stop in Germany. Outside, in the corridor, there was a Balkanish type who wanted me to share his first-class sleeper. It was not a good night; after it was over, somewhere in the Champagne, a long announcement was made in French about all the good things that were available for breakfast from the steward. Then, the voice repeated this message in German. This is the exact text of the translation:

Paris. Ende station.

And good morning to you too. Then, of course, the sinister long mobilisation-grade platforms of the Gare de l’Est, and enough coffee to get alert enough to poodlefake her dad.

On the reverse trip, things were more spartan, there being no food except for sausages from the steward and Austrian lager, so I spent the evening eating käsekrainer for their nutritional value and drinking beer with various people who all turned out to know people I knew at Vienna University and to be interested to find out what had happened with the demo that weekend (a riot, as it happened – it was a good weekend to be out of town). Eventually, the steward opened a empty compartment for the corridor party to move into. I recall someone carrying a copy of a book called Das Schwarzbuch der Menschheit, which struck me as impressively even-handed but rather depressing – hey, even plants have tried to kill the world. Sleeping Car Guy was on the train, but he didn’t recognise me, or perhaps he did and kept his trap shut.

I even got a wink or two of sleep, and we pulled into the Westbahnhof in good time and a small rainstorm. Good times.

The reason why the service is being withdrawn is optimistic; the high-speed trains now go so far and so fast that you can get from London to Vienna in a day by rail (although, rather you than me – it leaves at 0827 and arrives at 2322 with connections in Brussels and Frankfurt, a long day’s train ride by anyone’s standards). And, of course, if they have power sockets, WLAN, and a rail to hang your jacket on, like the business sections on Swiss trains, you’ll be able to conspire just as much if not more.

Thinking about it, the experience wasn’t something that foretold the future, but rather a hangover from the recent past. Sleeping Car Guy, like the huge, filthy Südbahnhof in Vienna with its parallel network of long distance buses into the Balkans, was a leftover of immediate post-Cold War Europe – something of the spirit I tried to convey in this post. Like our Transition and Accession category, though, that’s now done.

Crowd delirium

Urbain Grandier, as Aldous Huxley recounts (The Devils of Loudon, 1952), was a French clergyman of the seventeenth century. In 1634 he was executed. He’d been tried and found guilty of witchcraft. This charge had a sexual dimension; the nuns who first accused Grandier (in 1632) said that he had sent devils to seduce them. Of course, no modern person would admit to believing in witchcraft, so it’d surely be hard to find anyone today who thought that Grandier’s burning at the stake in front of a large crowd was warranted. To modern eyes, Grandier’s story comes across as picturesque and barbaric; and, ultimately, remote.

There are some other things relevant to Grandier’s case. (Bear in mind that Grandier was real person.) Despite torture, he never confessed to anything. But he had been critical of authority (specifically, Cardinal Richelieu). He was good looking, and he had a reputation as sexually adventurous.

But anyway, that was a long time ago.

Take Colin Stagg, then. In 1992 he was prosecuted for the murder of Rachel Nickell. Stagg never confessed to anything (despite attempts at entrapment by an undercover police woman, posing as a love interest). No evidence connected him with the crime he was accused of. The Metropolitan Police still went ahead and put him on trial for the murder, literally on the grounds that they believed he was the kind of man who would have done it. The case against him failed – as you’d hope. But the Daily Mail continued to insinuate, for almost a decade, that Stagg was a sexual deviant who had ‘gotten away with murder’. In 2008 a man already committed for murder was convicted of the crime Stagg had been accused of.

Hysteria is a word that’s been used. Huxley suggests ‘crowd-delirium’:

… the crowd-delirium can be indulged in, not merely without a bad conscience, but actually, in many cases, with a positive glow of conscious virtue.

I don’t think it’s reaching too far to suggest that where crowd-delirium exists today, it’s at least partly embodied in newspaper reporting. The 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher in Perugia, Italy, seems to have set off something very nasty. Here’s Sue Carroll in the Mirror:

Articulate and flirtatious with moist Bambi eyes, her status, carefully manipulated by her garrulous publicity-driven parents, morphed from suspected murderer to victim long before the trial. A flight home had been arranged and grandiose plans were afoot for the prodigal daughter’s return with lucrative book deals in the pipeline, movie rights under discussion and TV interviews planned.

The brutal murder of a beautiful young girl in a vile sex game was turned into a side issue. The fact Knox had wantonly and without a single vestige of shame named an innocent man, Patrick Lumumba, as Meredith’s killer was also conveniently forgotten by fans and family.

And here’s Libby Purves in the Times:

The American campaign for Amanda Knox (nobody seems to bother about Guede or Sollecito) is almost libellously critical of the Italian court; but for what it’s worth, both evidence and reconstruction look pretty convincing to me. Not least because of the perpetrators’ heavy use of drugs and drink — the defence put their changing stories down to memory loss — and because of the febrile sexual obsession that seems to have driven the young attackers.

It seems unlikely that it was deliberate murder: more like an extreme episode of disinhibited, brain-fogged sexual bullying that ran out of control. Three against one, fuelled by a toxic mixture of male excitement and female resentment of a “prig”.

You need more than imagination for a just conviction, and there isn’t evidence for a “vile sex game” or “brain-fogged sexual bullying”. It’s overwhelmingly likely that the ‘sex game’ theory is nothing more than a construct of the prosecution. And I’d suggest, incidentally, that a plausible explanation of why the investigation turned to Lumumba (a black man) is that the police attempted to fit him up by extracting a suitable confession from Amanda Knox; and that they did this on the basis that Knox had sent a text message to Lumumba (her employer) which said ‘ci vediamo’ (‘see you later’).

The more you look at the story of Sollecito and Knox, the more innocent they seem. And if they are innocent, all you have in their conviction is further injustice to add to the original crime. By contrast, there is much stronger evidence against Guede, who was convicted earlier this year. I suspect that this is the very obvious direction of travel for those not ‘transcending downwards’. But there’s a species of opinion writer that’s not interested in the rights or wrongs of one individual case. Purves again:

What is really sad though — see, even I jib at saying “wrong” — is the idea of “adventurousness”: sex made “zipless”, gourmet, divorced from affection, understanding, wonder or hope. You clock a hot piece, pull, mate and discard with hardly a name-check. It rounds off the evening but blunts your humanity. Many grow out of it and find faithful partnerships. Some find later life haunted by it. Some misunderstand the other party’s intentions and are devastated, or become stalkers.

At worst, a few confuse the general tolerance with permission to bully and coerce.

But as adventures go, frankly, the fling-culture is rubbish. And the saddest thing of all is how very miffed many people will be with me, for saying so.

A shorter Purves: someone must be doing something wrong; someone should burn.

Immediately. Without Delay.

From the assembled press, someone shouts a question, “Effective immediately?”
“I have been informed that such an announcement was prepared today, you should already have a copy. According to my understanding, that is immediately. Without delay.”

Twenty years ago this evening, Günter Schabowski gave an unrehearsed answer at a press conference, and thousands of East Berliners — and soon, many more thousands of East Germans — did not delay. The Berlin Wall was open.

Twice as Fast

Four years ago, I was boggled to realize that astronomers had been finding planets around other stars at an average rate of one per month since the first exoplanet around a main-sequence star was discovered in 1995.

On Monday, scientists from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced that they had found 32 new exoplanets in recent work. Moreover, that brings the total found to roughly 400. Instead of discovering a new planet every month, the average is now much closer to every two weeks.

What is the goal? The astronomers announced their findings at a conference titled, “Towards Other Earths: perspectives and limitations in the [Extremely Large Telescope] era.” The ESO instruments have led to the detection of 24 of the 28 known exoplanets with masses of less than 20 times the earth’s. The technology to spot earth-like planets around other stars is either on the drawing board or under construction. Key puzzles are now in how to characterize atmospheres around exoplanets, and how to deduce other characteristics of earth-like planets that the astronomers expect to find.

And in two weeks, astronomers will likely have found another planet around a different star.

Obama. Nobel.

Holy smokes. What will the man do for an encore?

From the BBC:

US President Barack Obama has won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.

The Nobel Committee said he was awarded it for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples”.

Reuters quotes from the citation (The Nobel servers are slammed and super-slow just at the moment):

“Very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future,” the committee said in a citation.


End of the Line?

From the New York Times:

Ertugrul Osman, who might have ruled the Ottoman empire from a palace in Istanbul, but instead spent most of his life in a walk-up apartment in Manhattan, died Wednesday night in Istanbul. He was 97. …

Mr. Osman was a descendant of Osman I, the Anatolian ruler who in 1299 established the kingdom that eventually controlled parts of Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Mr. Osman would have eventually become the Sultan but for the establishment of the Turkish Republic, proclaimed in 1923.

He is survived by his second wife, and had no children.

Born in 1912, Mr. Osman was the last surviving grandson of an Ottoman emperor; his grandfather, Abdul Hamid II, ruled from 1876 to 1909. …

As a young man, Mr. Osman ran a mining company, Wells Overseas, which required him to travel frequently to South America. Because he considered himself a citizen of the Ottoman Empire, he refused to carry the passport of any country. Instead, he traveled with a certificate devised by his lawyer. That might have continued to work had security measures not been tightened after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In 2004, he received a Turkish passport for the first time.

Is there a pretender now?

How Not to Meet European Standards

What happens on a Wednesday night if you’re one of the city’s most wired people, an avid Twitter and Facebook user, plugged in with non-governmental organizations, with a penchant for visiting like-minded folks in other European cities? In most cities and countries, not much remarkable: meeting friends, tweeting or sms’ing to coordinate, maybe romance arrives, maybe the night closes with parties or dancing or a good drink. But maybe if the city is Baku and the country is Azerbaijan and the person is Emin Milli, something else entirely happens.

Maybe while you’re in a cafe with friends two toughs come up to you in the cafe and start cursing you. Then before you can get in a word edgewise, they start to hit you and your friend Adnan Hadji-Zadeh. What happens when the police get involved? You go to the station to deal with the complaint. The toughs are let go. You are kept overnight and, by several accounts, beaten again, this time by the police. When the case — on charges of hooliganism — comes before a judge on Friday, you get two months of prison. The toughs? Long since let go. Apparently sitting in a cafe talking with friends constitutes hooliganism in today’s Azerbaijan.

(There’s a small chance that this will backfire for the government. Hadji-Zadeh has done PR work for BP, one of the largest investors in Azerbaijan. The country’s president is in London on Monday, and this case has gone up the ranks quickly enough that it will be raised with Aliyev in person. US, EU, German, OSCE and other international representatives are pressing the case in-country. French, UK and Austrian media are reporting. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is on the case. Reports and organizing efforts are also crossing social networking sites. Authoritarians don’t like looking foolish, and this case makes the authorities in Baku look very foolish indeed. Detentions for “hooliganism” are an old Soviet tactic; they have no place in a country that has ratified numerous European agreements on human rights and that aims for closer relations with the European community of nations.)

Gold and Iron, by Fritz Stern

“This is a book about Germans and Jews, about power and money. It is a book focused on Bismarck and Bleichröder, Junker and Jew, statesman and banker, collaborators for over thirty years. The setting is that of a Germany where two worlds clashed: the new world of capitalism and an earlier world with its ancient feudal ethos; gradually a new and broadened elite emerged, and Bismarck’s tie with Bleichröder epitomized that regrouping. It is the story of the founding of the new German Empire, in whose midst a Jewish minority rose to embattled prominence. It is a record of events and of the interests and sentiments that shaped these events; it is a record of events and of the interests and sentiments that shaped these events; it is a record largely told by contemporaries, in thousands of hitherto unused letters and documents. It is also the story of the fragility of that Empire and its ruler, of its hidden conflicts, and of the hypocrisy which allowed a glittering façade to cover the harsh and brutal facts below. The ambiguity of wealth — its threat to tradition and its promise of mobility — is part of this record, and so is the anguished ambiguity of Jewish success, so striking, so visible, so delusive. It is a study of a society in motion, and mobility was its essence and its trauma. …”
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