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[819] Lost Horizon – James Hilton


“Now he perceived that the unreasonableness, however fantastic, was to be swallowed. That flight from Baskul had not been the meaningless exploit of a madman. It had been something planned, prepared . . . For what possible reason could four chance passengers with the British Government aeroplane he whisked away to these trans-Himalayan solitudes?” (Ch.5, 103)

A British group of four, one of whom consular officer Hugh Conway, leaves India in the 1930s by plane only to be skyjacked and whisked away to the distant Tibetan mountains. In the fabled mountainous rampart of Shangri-La, in the valley of warmth and beauty, where a group of lamasery pavilions cling to the mountainside, they find a people leading lives of simplicity, moderation, and peace. Despite the hospitality offered, a part of Conway still insists that there’s something queer about the place that he cannot blame the truculence of his fellow Mallinson, who insists on leaving right away.

We want to return to civilization as soon as possible. (Mallinson) And are you so very certain that you are away from it. (Chang)

As the group becomes settled, a deep anesthetizing tranquility begins to sweep over Conway, who prefers the peace and quiet of Shangri-La over the racket of the world. He undergoes some curious transformation of the mind and becomes comfortable with the surrounding. A meeting with the reclusive High Lama affords him the secret behind the confounding mystery of the place.

This is a strangely absorbing and fascinating story that has sustaining interest in me. The atmosphere of the setting is soothing but the mystery behind is stimulating. There’s a spiritual force and an underlying philosophy that carries the reader’s imagination beyond the scope of the book. The power of this novel is in the sense of potential peace that is evoked. This sense of peace, calm and profundity is available to everyone but is not for everyone. Metaphorically, it’s the personal journey in search of that inner peace that is Shangri-La. That reaching true enlightenment for those who seek it, will find the Shangri-La.

231 pp. Pocket Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Tokyo Reads

Hopefully I’ll get to finish some of these before touching down in Tokyo this fall. Tokyo’s transformation is often reflected in literature.

Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima (Shibuya District)
First of the tetralogy. It is 1912, Meiji Japan giving way to “Taisho democracy”, the milieu that of a fading aristocracy resigned to westernization. A close look into this changing Japan through the friendship of two lads, one whose life is preordained and the other wants to bend the world into his ideals.

In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami (Kachidori Bridge)
Loneliness is also the key to this novel—the loneliness of Frank, an overweight American tourist who apparently wants to take the entire Shinjuku district of Tokyo up any orifice his minder Kenji can arrange.

Who Is Mr. Satoshi? by Jonathan Lee
Robert “Foss” Fossick is a middle-aged photographer, the classic, grizzled, down-at-heel anti-hero who draws the curtains to choke on life’s ennui. He rejects any distractions from friends who could suture his psychological wounds. This debut from Jonathan Lee, who conceived the novel while posted with his City law firm in one of its Japanese offices, is confident, sharply-written, and refreshingly direct.

Rivalry: A Geisha’s Tale by Kafu Nagai (Shimbashi)
Shimbashi was once the shimmering nightlife district in Tokyo where geishas and attendants scuttled between wine houses and kabuki theaters to entertain customers. This book detours into the lives of Shimbashi in 1912, offering for view the hangers-on, hack writers, men of power and the waitresses and the attendants who serve the geishas, in effect shaping beautifully realized portrait of this Japanese subculture.

Reading Howard Sturgis’s Belchamber

I have never heard of Howard Sturgis until I pulled this book off the shelf at my local used bookstore. Its a diamond in the rough to say the least. Sturgis was a friend of Henry James, who keeps Sturgis’s novel distantly in view, at the same time as casting a long shadow over it. Despite some obligatory praises and demurrals, James delivered some scathing criticisms that demoralized Sturgis. The book was not well received when it came out in 1904.

Belchamber is a novel of aristocratic life, centring on a great Jacobean house, and peopled with a marvelously unlikeable cast of rakes and schemers, dodgy duchesses and complacent earls.

Its originality lies in part in its not being about a picaresque charmer and chancer, but about a high-minded, high-born weakling, the heir to a marquisate who wishes repeatedly that his brainless and hearty younger brother, Arthur, could inherit instead. He’s antisocial, has a propensity for work, has a real aptitude for scholarship and a love for erudition for its own sake. He’s out of place with other gentlemen in his social standing. He’s called a sissy but he is true to himself and his conviction. It’s not easy to see that he is a homosexual, despite being forced to marry a neglectful woman as his wife.

the book is yet another that satirizes the English ruling class, but through the eyes of someone who is undermined.

[818] The Angel of Darkness – Caleb Carr


“As Marcus had said the night before, the jury was past caring about any psychological explanation of what context had produced a normal, sane girl who would one day be capable of murdering her own children; in fact, they were past believing that she had murdered her children in the first place…” (Ch.48, 606)

The Angel of Darkness is the sequel to The Alienist in terms of the same cast: the brooding alienist Dr. Lazlo Kreizler, his indomitable servant Cyrus Montrose, the high-living New York Times reporter John Schuyler Moore, the detectives Lucius and Marcus Issacson, and feisty Sara Howard, now a private investigator for her own. The current story is narrated by a former street urchin taken in by Dr. Kreizler, the street-smart and observant Stevie Taggert, who figures prominently in this investigation of a peculiarly dastardly crime.

The plot is initiated by the kidnapping of a Spanish diplomat’s baby, then thickens, quite convolutedly, as suspicion falls on Elspeth Hunter, a malevolent nurse (actually an imposter) who left under the allegation of having suffocated several babies. Further probe reveals that she has been a suspected murdrress of her own children in upstate New York, under the name Libby Hatch. The most baffling aspect of this woman, and thus the long pursuit, capture, and attempted conviction, is that she is an unending string of paradoxes—some of them, unquestionably, possessing deadly dimensions. Her contradictory behavior confuses many: she looks like a predatory animal, but she seems genuinely caring for the girl she kidnaps.

The book is more a courtroom thriller than a police procedural; and the pursuit of Libby Hatch involves such notable historical figures as women’s-rights crusader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Libby’s defense attorney Clarence Darrow and Thomas Roosevelt.

The story sags here and there, but Carr’s presentation of the socio-politics is authentic of the period and cannot be easily dismissed, because the villainess is almost as much of a victim as the actual victims. The very theme is the role of females in that world, how females must assimilate to the roles expected of them—motherhood, housekeeping, nurturing children; and if they cannot fulfill these responsibilities, they are worthless. Dr. Kreizler seeks to connect the two sides of the character, leading to that shaky ethical question about a woman’s determination to gain over her life against society’s expectation of her. So what the investigation team and reader are faced with is not an inconsistency as much as a troubled unity.

The book can plodding at times, but characterization is detailed and nuanced, really getting into the mind of the criminal. Carr is attentive to historical details which makes the reading very enjoyable. Once again, forensics and psychiatry are used to nail a very dangerous perpetrator who is not only sane, but calculated, manipulative and meticulous to cover her trail.

749 pp. Ballantine Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Reading Kafka’s “The Trial”

“Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., because he had done nothing wrong, but one day he was arrested.”

The Trial is ever more relevant in a world full of lies and propaganda meted out by governing bodies that appear to be democratic but in reality authoritarian.

Kafka opens with these disconcerting words, setting the tone for the rest of the novel, as what follows is a deeply disturbing account of a man placed at the mercy of (until then unknown) law courts. Although K. maintains adamantly that he is innocent, at no point is there a hint given of the crime K. may have committed, adding to the reader’s confusion as they are given as little information as K. and so cannot judge whether the appropriate ending would be conviction or acquittal.

The Trial is deeply thought-provoking in its uncomfortable presentation of a world where people are observed by secret police and suddenly arrested, reflecting the social turmoil in Europe around the time Kafka wrote it in 1914. There are striking parallels to Orwell’s 1984 where the protagonist is observed constantly and people are punished by the totalitarian state for actions which seem harmless, such as “thought-crime.”

[817] The Alienist – Caleb Carr


“From that moment on, he said, we must make every possible effort to rid themselves of preconceptions about human behavior. We must try not to see the world through our own eyes, nor to judge it by our own values, but through and by those of our killer.” (Ch.13, 129)

The Alienist is an engrossing historical fiction taking place in New York City just before the turn of the century. It revolves around the activities of one of the first forensic investigations in world history. In 1896 a serial killer is brutally slaughtering young transverstite boy prostitutes and mutilating their bodies. With neither the public nor the police interested in lives or deaths of these abominations to society, and that the poor and the new-immigrated warrant little attention, there is very little incentive to investigate. Not only is the police not interested, along with church officials who are only concerned with their own monetary interests, they contrive to obfuscate and suppress facts of the crimes.

If we accepted the supposition of his sanity, then we were left with the nagging question of what possible satisfaction or benefit he could be deriving from the butchery. (Ch.15, 157)

The task of tracking the killer has been assigned to Theodore Roosevelt’s (Police Commissioner at the time) old friend from his Harvard days, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, who is an alienist, or an expert on mental pathologies (minds that are alienated from themselves). Kreizler recruits John Schuyler Moore, a police reporter for the New York Times to investigate, along with Sara Howard, a woman detective who is looked down upon by her male colleagues. A firm believer in psychological causation, Kreizler thinks the context of life leads to a psychopath, The dredging up of this argument takes reader to the philosophical heart of the book, which explores the causes of sanity and criminality, and ultimately the nature of evil.

So unfolded is a challenging and tedious investigation on various facets. Between setbacks, interference, slow advances, with the help of modern forensic techniques, a profile containing the killer’s facts and personal histories is assembled. The team comes to terms with the mandate that they have to abandon their own preconceptions and start seeing the world in the killer’s shoes. When confrontation with the killer becomes inevitably imminent, on the killer’s schedule, the team comes to empathize with a man who is equal parts predator and prey.

The Alienist isn’t only an ingenious thriller, it gives authenticity of old New York. This I attribute to the fact that Caleb Carr is a historian and biographer. Beneath its rich historical trappings is a breathless and sometimes grisly detective story that reveals the social turmoil of the time. It shows, sadly, that a crisis like the serial killer is inevitable because he is himself an offspring of a society and its sick conscience. The killer dodges the law but craves the society, craves the opportunity to show people what their society had done to him. And the odd thing, as Carr has really nailed, is that society revels men like the killer who are easy repositories of all that is dark and wrong in our own social world. Society tolerates what makes the killer.

498 pp. Random House. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Historical Basis of “The Alienist”

Set in late 19th century New York City, where lower Manhattan was a slum full of tenements and wgere crimes were rife, the book is a period piece that delves into the modern idea of a serial killer. In particular, a serial killer who might not be geuinely mentally diseased but was influenced to a decisive extent by his early experiences. He is intellectually sound and whose violent acts betray peculiar patterns of moral thought. A warped sense of morality.

The historical background is populated by psychologist and physician Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, who believes in contextual experiences. Shortly after Theodore Roosevelt became president, he had a visit from Dr. Kreizler, who came to plead the cause of better care for “the most disenfranchised”: children and the insane. Roosevelt noted after their meeting, “He remains by turns brusque and courteous, moody and warm. He still talks in spirited fashion about his views on the formation of the human psyche. His theories, like the man himself, retain their odd quality of being at once unsettling and incomprehensible.” In fact, Kreizler’s works lay the crucial foundation on the identifying the psychological profile of a serial killer.

Before the 20th century, persons suffering from mental illness were thought to be “alienated,” not only from the rest of society but from their own true natures. Those experts who studied mental pathologies were therefore known as alienists.


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