The Picture of Dorian Gray

It is not often that you come across a classic that really lives up to its label, a book that really is timeless rather than simply a good story that was written 300 years ago. The Picture of Dorian Gray is such a book. Full of vivid, fascinating characters (Oscar Wilde said that the main characters of the book were different reflections of himself - "Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps."), it is quite simply a work of genius and something that must be read at least once. It is also a work containing several pearls of wisdom from Lord Henry, which may have prompted the comment from The Daily Chronicle that Dorian Gray contains "one element...which will taint every young mind that comes in contact with it." This may have been in reference to the undertones of homosexuality that sometimes are apparent, but in the modern age, it would fall equally upon the sayings of Lord Henry.

Dorian Gray is the only novel written by Wilde, and after reading one is struck that there really ought to be many more novels; it is a tragic pity that there are not. Rather than do a review of sorts, instead I will include some of the wisdoms of Lord Henry/Oscar Wilde to illustrate the genius.

The Sayings of Lord Henry

I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects. A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies. I have not got one who is a fool. They are all men of some intellectual power, and consequently they all appreciate me.

None of us can stand other people having the same faults as ourselves.

Those who are faithful know only the trivial side of love; it is the faithless who know love's tragedies.

The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.

People sometimes say that Beauty is only superficial. That may be so. But at least it is not so superficial as Thought is. To me, Beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.

To get back one's youth, one has to merely repeat one's follies.

The people who love only once in their lives are really the shallow people. What they call their loyalty, and their fidelity, I call either the lethargy of custom or their lack of imagination. Faithfulness is to the emotional life what consistency is to the life of the intellect - simply a confession of failures.

When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving one's self, and one always ends by deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance.

Women defend themselves by attacking, just as they attack by sudden and strange surrenders.

Whenever a man does a thoroughly stupid thing, it is always from the noblest motives.

I never approve, or disapprove, of anything now. It is an absurd attitude to take to life. We are not sent into the world to air our moral prejudices.

No civilised man ever regrets a pleasure, and no uncivilised man ever knows what a pleasure is.

Being adored is a nuisance. Women treat us just as Humanity treats its gods. They worship us, and are always bothering us to do something for them.

Women, as some witty Frenchman once put it, inspire us with the desire to do masterpieces, and always prevent us from carrying them out.

It is not good for one's morals to see bad acting.

When women take lovers, it is merely to have someone with whom they could have scenes.

One can always be kind to people about whom one cares nothing.

There is a fatality about good resolutions - they are always made too late.

The one charm of the past is that it is the past. But women never know when the curtain has fallen. They always want a sixth act, and as soon as the interest of the play is entirely over they propose to continue it.

Never trust a woman who wears mauve, whatever her age may be, or a woman over thirty-five who is fond of pink ribbons. It always means that they have a history.

Religion consoles some. Its mysteries have all the charm of a flirtation.

Women love us for our defects. If we have enough of them they will forgive us everything, even our intellects.

A man can be happy with any woman as long as he does not love her.

One regrets the loss even of one's worst habits. Perhaps one regrets them the most. They are such an essential part of one's personality.

When we are happy we are good; but when we are good, we are not always happy.

The Man In The Picture

The Man in the Picture, as it purports on its cover, is a ghost story. However, it is not a ghost story in the vein of The Ring or Ju-On that inspires dread in the reader (although I was careful to avoid looking into mirrors in the dead of night!), try as it might to portray a fearful atmosphere. Instead the reader feels more like a bystander watching events play out. True, the characters in the tale suffer from some dreadful occurrences but they never seem to be able to draw you in to share it, unlike, for example the fate of the Baron de Canolles in Nanon, where the reader becomes wrapped up in his fate. Unfortunately for this tale, it just meanders along. The story itself seems to be an adult adaptation of the fate of a Norwegian boy in the beginning of Roald Dahl's The Witches, and could almost do with being a little longer and expanding upon some of the ghostly goings-on. The ending, unfortunately, is quite obvious once certain things have been said. It is not a bad book by any means, but in a world where there are more books available to read than any one person can in a lifetime, if a book is not thought-provoking or compelling there is really no justification to read it given the alternatives. And so one should not feel that they are missing out by not reading The Man in the Picture.

The Airmen Who Would Not Die

The Airmen Who Would Not Die begins with a note to the reader from a former professor from the Smithsonian Institution which says that the book "will become a prime source of evidence of human survival after death". Arguably in the 29 years since being published, it has not achieved this, but it remains an interesting and thought-provoking book as it relates to life after death.

The book is split into two tales; the first is about a pilot, Captain W. G. R. Hinchcliffe, who dies on an attempt to cross the Atlantic. He then begins to make contact with a lady using a ouija board to get a message to his wife, to reassure her that all is well and give her some important information. The story tells of the sessions that Captain Hinchcliffe had with his wife and how information he predicted came true; but then twists a little as the Captain has a warning for some friends working on a new method of travel - the R-101 Airship. The second story of the book relates to the R-101, its construction and subsequent crash, and the messages received from several of the people who died in the crash.

The Airmen Who Would Not Die is a compelling read. As the author himself says in a conversation with his wife:

Who can buy all that all of a sudden?
I don't think anybody, including me, can buy that all of a sudden.
How can they buy it, then?
By going through all the evidence, and then looking at the alternatives.

In essence, this book does not set out to convince everyone that life after death is a reality. It merely raises the possibility, and with the evidence included in the book it does a good job of showing that there is a chance of it being correct and not just a fallacy. But as the author himself says, it is up to the reader to sift through the evidence and consider the alternatives and then decide for him or herself what seems most probable.

The State of Africa

The State of Africa tells the tale of African politics in the years from independence up to recent times. Rather than focus upon corrupt politicians and lampoon them for their selfish and harmful ways, Martin Meredith instead exposes the corruptions and wars and political suppression without comment; removing his own opinion makes the reader draw their own, often making the events recounted even more shocking. The only time that a kind of authorial bias shows itself is when Meredith is scathing of French involvement in arming the Hutu proponents of the Tutsi genocide, and the willingness of the international community (in part led by Boutrous Boutrous-Ghali, then UN Secretary General) to stick their heads in the sand and ignore a genocide, and then reward the guilty party with a lavish aid package.

But The State of Africa is not concerned with listing all of Africa's problems. It is a fair assessment of the years since colonialism, setting out that the biggest obstacle to the development of Africa has been the so-called Big Men, dictators with absolute power such as Amin of Uganda, Mobuto of Zaire, Taylor of Liberia and Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who tolerate no opposition and fall foul to the lure of power, destroying the infrastructure of their countries in order to benefit personally. However, the book also focuses upon the success stories post-independence, showing that it is possible to develop economically and that the favoured argument of the Big Men for their continuance in power, that a single-party state is the most beneficial for the quickest way to development, is a false truth.

The State of Africa is a clear, easily understandable book, giving an overview of the history of Africa in the last 50 years and an excellent introduction to the politics of Africa. It is a sad tale, a story of squander and corruption, of absolute power and collective repression, manipulation of the past to entrench those at the top, but it also shows that there is hope, that Africa is beginning to turn the page and that in further 50 years, it should be a totally different story from the last.

To Have and Have Not

To Have and Have Not is a title that perhaps refers to the left arm of the main character of the story, as he starts the tale with it and ends it without. Well he ends the tale without a lot of things, which was a bit like me as I seemed to lose my resolve over the last 50 pages.

The first 150 pages are excellent, telling three different events of Harry Morgan's life, with seemingly never a dull moment. But once the book gets into the final chapters, after a rather exciting occurrence, it loses its way, going from a fast interesting pace to a rather dull quagmire, with whole chapters spent on totally inane topics like the thoughts of several hither-to unmentioned persons in the book whilst they are lying in their yachts, all to provide the backdrop of two or three lines at the end as the boat with Morgan goes by. You could easily skip the majority of these pages and not be any worse off for the conclusion.

Talking of which, it was rather a damp squib; after putting up with the triviality of the preceding chapters, I was hoping for something momentous. Instead it just fizzles out, which is a great pity as the majority of the book is story telling at its finest, with scenes that just come alive in your head. I almost felt a little cheated after wading through the closing moments to find out what happened, but despite that, the book as a whole was a pleasurable experience. Harry Morgan is a believable character, and the story has the air that you could be sitting in a bar somewhere and being told this by an old acquaintance of Morgan's. This is the selling point of the tale, and despite the ending chapters and being 71 years old, is why it is worth a read today.

Worlds At War

Worlds At War, by Anthony Pagden, is a book outlining the differences between East & West that have existed for the past 25 centuries, starting with Ancient Greece and Persia and bringing it to the current day. Although available in print, I listened to this book via Audible, and found it a very enjoyable experience. Worlds At War explains the clashes between the different civilisations, and provides a very good overview of many issues that we face today, giving a level understanding to the reader of why they exist and how they have come into being. It really must be on the top of the list for anybody seeking an overview of the differences in thought between the Western world and that of the Eastern, simply because it is written in an easily approachable fashion, and does not suffer from any bias - the author does not set out to preach about the superiority of one culture over the other. My only fault, as ever, are the odd careless mistake. Two that stood out for me where the mention of Napoleon invading Egypt in 1789, and dating the London Bombings of 2005 as June 8th rather than July 7th. That aside, Worlds At War is a truly fascinating story.

Nostradamus - The Complete Prophecies for The Future

Nostradamus (published 2006), by Mario Reading, is a volume regarding the prophecies of Nostradamus concerning the future. Using what we are told to be "a revolutionary new analysis of the secret dating of Nostradamus's prophecies", can we get a glimpse of what the future will be like?

Given the events that are spelt out, it is unlikely that we would want to. The first 20 or so years do not seem so bad - in 2017 there will be scandals in the Catholic Church; in 2022 King Charles III will abdicate the British throne in favour of Prince Harry (to become King Henry IX). There comes a period from 2050 onwards, where the world is predicted to become a much worse place to live. There will be antagonism between East and West, with an Islamic state doing much to worsen the relations. The Catholic Church will face it's biggest ever crisis. A worldwide epidemic will happen. England (not Britain) will secede from the EU. And finally there shall be a global nuclear war in 2070, which will kill millions, and lead to famines and the cruel after-effects of nature, and ultimately, the end of democracy.

But how likely is this? First we should address the revolutionary analysis. The main difference between this book and previous works on Nostradamus is that, according to the author, previous works attempt a literal translation and look at each quatrain (a quatrain being a verse in the 10 'Centuries' that Nostradamus authored) written as a separate prediction. Instead, Reading has looked at the interrelation between quatrains and sought to adhere to Nostradamus's index dates, in order to "throw an extraordinary collective light onto the meanings of individual, often opaque, prophecies".

How then do the predictions for the time period since publishing hold up? The book was first published in 2006 - the first prediction past this point was 'Death of a leader in Rome'. The only two 'leaders' that I can find who died in 2006 were Gerard Ford and Saddam Hussein, but perhaps I am being too literal. The next prediction was also for 2006, and was 'Crisis in the Protestant Church'. This did come to pass, as there was a large brouhaha relating to homosexuals. Now the next two related predictions have as yet not occurred, although they have until the end of 2008. The first was 'Assassination of a world leader', dated 2006 onwards, and is followed up by 'Assassination aftermath' in 2008, where the brother of the victim reacts excessively and alienates traditional allies. As of yet, this is still to pass.

There is an interesting prediction for 2007, interpreted as 'North Korean Conflict'. The summary of this was that 'North Korea will refuse to accede to the West's demands over clarification of its nuclear capacity. A crisis will be triggered which may lead to war'. There was a small murmur of discontent with North Korea during this time, but nothing as serious as the summary purports. Switch Iran with North Korea though, and you have one of the more serious issues of the last year. This makes perfect sense with the benefit of hindsight, but illustrates one of the pitfalls of this book: some interpretations (mainly those that state a name or country) are made on the interpreter's assumptions and leave little room for error. In the climate that the book was written, it most likely made the most sense that North Korea would be the country in question; history however took a different course.

There was one other example of interpretation being mingled with assumption that I noticed. In 2015, Nostradamus wrote:

The masculine woman will exert herself to the north
She will annoy nearly all of Europe and the rest of the world
Two failures will put her in such an imbalance
That both life and death will strengthen eastern Europe

The summary for this states that Hilary Clinton will be the first female President in this period, and will lead America to alienate large parts of Europe. This assumption is reached partly via the meaning of 'masculine woman', to quote Reading, "Nostradamus's image of the 'masculine woman' obviously has nothing whatsoever to do with the appearance or hormone count, but should be taken as implying a woman who takes on a job usually done by a man". At the time of writing, the prediction was for Hilary Clinton to run for President in 2008. Obviously since then a lot has changed, we have Barrack Obama and it may be now that it falls to some other woman at a later date to be the first female President. But this again illustrates the fallacy of giving a specific name, although it is obvious that Nostradamus himself did not state it would be Clinton. Instead, I think that the quatrain refers to the United States of America as a whole. After all, what is one of the most famous images of the USA? The Statue of Liberty, which happens to be female and is overtly large (masculine). Regardless, these assumptions may cause problems in the eyes of some.

My only other critique of this book is that in two instances, facts which are not difficult to check have not been checked. This is something that always grates, as these are not secrets privy to only a select few. The first error is when it is stated that "Hitler once believed that Churchill would not declare war on Germany". Mentioning Churchill here is about as relevant as saying George Washington, as Churchill was nowhere near a position of power in 1939 owing to his constant calling of several years for rearmament to combat Nazi Germany. A simple check would have shown that Churchill was not Prime Minister until 1940, and it is unfortunate that this has not been done so. The second error concerns the death of Pliny the Elder. Reading states that "...the monstrous waves also killed his uncle, the elder Pliny," however the letter from Pliny the Younger concerning his uncle's death makes no mention of tidal waves, instead stating that "He raised himself up with the assistance of two of his servants, and instantly fell down dead; suffocated, as I conjecture, by some gross and noxious vapour."

Two incorrect facts aside, this is an interesting read, despite painting a very bleak outlook for humanity. One must wish, after reading, that the author is wrong after all. The consequences if he is correct do not bear thinking about.

Additional note

I wrote to the publishers outlining the two incorrect facts, and the author himself got back to me almost immediately to say that he will amend these in a future edition to be released next year, which struck me as very decent of him. So if you wait until next year, all will be well!

101 World Heroes

101 World Heroes, by Simon Sebag Montefiore is a book where the author sets out to inspire the modern age with tales of heroes past. In doing so, the definition of a hero is challenged. When one thinks of a hero, one thinks of a brave warrior or an individual selflessly saving the lives of many others. One doesn't tend to think of Tchaikovsky or Oscar Wilde as heroic. With the inclusion of these men and many other similar figures, Montefiore argues that one can be heroic by being inspirational and standing up for your values. Perhaps one can infer that the author feels that this is lacking in today's age, with the strap-line to the book "Great Men & Women for an Unheroic Age". Be so as it may, this is an interesting, well-written book, with plenty of people that you have heard of, but also plenty that you may not, ensuring that their memory lives on. Some exclusions may seem a little strange given some inclusions (Elvis Presley is there, but no Martin Luther King for example), but if as you read the biographies of these men and women, there can only be one conclusion at the end: These people were inspirational.

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