Dead Souls

The title of this book can be a little mis-leading in English. When I ordered it from Amazon, I thought that the story was about a man going about the Russian countryside bargaining for the souls of dead peasants. In actual fact, the word souls here is a Russian term for a serf, which slightly changes the focus of the story, but in truth does not detract from the enjoyment of it.

We never do find out just what the hero of the tale is going to do with his dead souls. Perhaps this was included in the section of the second volume that the author burnt shortly before his death. Incidentally, the burning of the papers means that the last chapter in the book pretty much makes no sense, as there is much character development and twists that are lost, and I wouldn't recommend reading it for this reason. In the main however, the book is a treat as we follow the central character around the Russian countryside visiting various outlandish land owners, trying to bargain for their dead peasants. It is funny, not in a laugh out loud and drop the book way, but in a witty kind of way, and the time passes quickly as we read through.

One of the pleasures of reading older works of literature and those from a foreign culture is the discovery of unknown phrases and wording that one is not used to seeing. My favourite discovery in this case was that land owners in Russia in the 19th Century apparently all spoke like Hulk Hogan, frequently calling each other "Brother". Other things that caught my eye were:

  • Here the tutor turned all his attention on Themistoclus and seemed to want to jump into his eyes
  • A mention of spontaneous human combustion: "He got burnt up on his own, my dear. It somehow caught fire inside him, he drank too much, just this little blue flame came out of him, and he smoldered, smoldered, and turned black as coal."
  • "Dead people around the house! Eh, that's going a bit far! Maybe just to frighten sparrows in your kitchen garden at night or something?"
  • "Am I some kind of German, to go dragging myself over the roads begging for money?"
  • "That rascal of a cook, who learned from a Frenchman, buys a cat, skins it, and serves it instead of hare."
  • He fell asleep soundly, deeply, fell asleep in the wondrous way that they alone sleep who are so fortunate as to know nothing of hemorrhoids, or fleas, or overly powerful mental abilities.
  • How nothing really changes in the world: "Of course, the female half of mankind is a puzzle."
  • "He should have taken after his grandmother on his mother's side, that would have been best, but he came out just as the saying goes: 'Not like mother, not like father, but like Roger the lodger.'"
  • A couple of descriptions for ugly people:
  1. Some had faces like badly baked bread
  2. Only the quantity of pocks and pits that mottled it included it in the number of those faces on which, according to the popular expression, the devil comes at night to thresh peas.
  3. Finally he sniffed out his home and family life, and learned that he had a grown-up daughter whose face also looked as if the threshing of peas took place on it nightly.
  • His handwriting was of the sort of which people say, "A magpie wrote it with her claw, and not a man."
  • A wobbly crone who looked like a dried pear...
  • Quicker than a crop-headed wench can braid her hair.
  • Through his open mouth and the nostrils of his nose it began producing sounds as such do not exist even in the latest music. Everything was there - drum, flute, and some abrupt sound, like a dog's barking.
  • "If all you want is to get rich quickly, then you'll never get rich; but if you want to get rich without asking about the time, then you'll get rich quickly."
  • The Russian man, even one who is worse than others, still has a sense of justice. Unless he's some sort of Jew, and not a Russian.

The Prince

The Prince is undoubtly one of the wisest books that has ever been written. There are not many other books offering an insight into human psychology that were written 500 years ago that can be picked up and applied to many different situations. How to come out on top of internal politics, succeed in mergers and govern countries are all areas that The Prince offers guidance.

I can think of no higher praise that should I ever come into a management position, I shall keep a copy of this book on my desk for reference. There was one passage that convinced me of its worth in today's business environment:

"It is much safer to be feared than loved... For one can generally say this about men: they are ungrateful, fickle, simulators and deceivers, avoiders of danger and greedy for gain. While you work for their benefit they are completely yours, offering you their blood, their property, their lives... but when it draws nearer to you they turn away."

And therein would appear to be one of the secrets to running a succesful business, treating employees and customers fairly.

Aside from being interpreted as a business guide, The Prince is also an interesting account of the politics and history of 15th Century Italy. It obviously has multi-uses, but there is one area that I shan't be taking Machiavelli's advice: how to treat women.

"...because Fortune is a woman, and if you want to keep her under it is necessary to beat her and force her down."

Looks like there is some truth to that stereotype....

Pirate Ghosts & Phantom Ships

The title of this book, strangely enough, is a succinct appraisal of what lies inside. There are thirty-eight tales of ghostly ships and spirits of dead pirates, the majority of which centre around the coast of New England, where the author hails from. Pirate Ghosts & Phantom Ships is a clear work of love, you really get the sense that the author enjoys the stories as the stories are well told, and often inspiring (in the spring I want to investigate some of the haunted towns and islands mentioned, largely due to the story telling).

This is a short review as there really isn't a lot that you can say about a collection of short stories, each between 2 and 6 pages long, but if ghosts are your thing, there are some good stories here that I have not heard told elsewhere that may give you the chills.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

Narrative... is the stirring account of a life in slavery, written by Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave from Maryland. It was written in 1845, and so was during the time that slavery was still legal in the southern states of the USA. It doesn't seek to detail his escape, unfortunate as that is as it would probably have been of great excitement, but Douglass gives his understandable reasons for this, his escape having come some 7 years prior to publishing and the details of which may have caused some troubles for those who aided him.

My main thoughts upon finishing this book are what disgusting cruelties were meted out to slaves, and what a complete disgrace slavery is in the first place. It shows how human nature can manipulate any situation (for instance, where Douglass states that of all the slave owners to be owned by, religious ones were the worst as they would quote scripture relating to the owning and punishment of slaves as necessary justification for their behaviours, and were the cruellest of masters), but also equally, how human nature can be moved to compassion and love, such as that evidenced by the abolitionists. Thankfully then, ones faith in human nature is not totally removed.

Narrative... is a somewhat sad tale, although it does have a happy ending. It is a first-person perspective of slavery in the south, and evidences the clear ideological differences between the north and south that would eventually lead to the civil war. Thankfully, the north won. Or else we may have many more of these accounts of slavery in print today.


Given the cover and title of this book, Incest is not a book for reading on the train; not unless you wish to be the recipient of a few odd looks. But, as they say, never judge a book by its cover. You would be forgiven for thinking that it is a tale of a cruel, forced love by a father unto his daughter, or that as it was penned by the notorious Marquis de Sade, that it is a celebration of incest, complete with plenty of laviscious detail on this taboo. But instead, it is a tale of morals and corruption, with a smattering of philosophy thrown in.

Incest is a short novel, only 87 pages in length. In this case though, size does not matter, rather it's how you use it. De Sade paints a desperately tragic tale, of a father who abandons his beautiful, angelic wife and totally corrupts his beautiful daughter from birth, with dreadful consequences for all involved. In doing so, the issue is raised of whether the daughter is a willing accomplice or not; despite giving herself willingly to her father, the question exists that was she really willing when she had been raised all her life with this aim in mind? De Sade hints as much in places, and leaves it to the reader to draw their own conclusions.

The question is also raised of what really is a taboo, and whether there really is such a thing in the first place. de Sade raises an interesting point that taboos may be social in their nature when he says "Would not a man have a conscience that never varied? From one end of the earth to another, would not all actions be the same for him? But is that actually the case? No, there is nothing real in the world, nothing which... though unjust here, is not legitimate five hundred leagues away." Thus, the act of incest is nothing more than natural, that society over time has unjustly demonised. The protagonist even found a biblical precedent to argue the legitimacy of incest, quoting the example of Lot and claiming to hold such great respect for the holy scriptures by emulating its heroes. This throws up further interesting ideas regarding the legitimacy of incest and taboos in general.

We also discover smatterings of de Sade's personality reflected in the characters. Marriage is decried as something done by the stupid or lazy, "You never marry... unless you do not know what you are doing, or what to do with your life". Religion is also besmirched as something solely designed "to frighten people without ever being of use to them". The devout suffer equally, devoutness being described as "a weakness that affects particular ages and particular states of health". Knowing what we do about de Sade, this probably shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone, but it can be of interest, especially with regards to the development of the main characters.

As for the actual cases of incest in Incest, they are handled very tastefully. This may be to help depict incest as a natural form of love, as there are no graphic descriptions or sexual violence involved; rather any mention is presented no differently from a typical love affair in a romance novel. Despite the very nature of the story being shocking to many, the tale itself manages to avoid this for shocks sake. In fact it is a very well constructed story, with only one thing missing. That is regarding a particular incident around two-thirds of the way into the book. This incident could, one imagines, have been stretched decidely a bit longer than the paragraph or two that were granted to it. But when the main complaint about a novel is that one incident could be lengthened, it is easy to surmise that this is a book that could and should be read.

In summary, Incest is a near-forgotten classic. Published by Hesperus Press (who make a thing out of publishing the unremembered books by noted authors), it should be sought by anyone seeking an intellectual stimulus, or by those seeking curious glances on the busy morning commuter train.

British Goblins

British Goblins really ought to be called Welsh Goblins as it deals only with stories from Wales. That said, the 1881 folklore classic is a great read, packed full of various accounts of fairy behaviour from a time when the belief in such beings was still current in some of the population.

Goblins details various types of fairy (I think from reading this that at the time of writing, the use of goblin and fairy were pretty interchangeable and not as distinct as today; that is to say that the fairies of old were not these pretty, dainty Walt Disney things that we see today) with lots of anecdotes gathered from Welshmen by the author.

The stories themselves are somewhat charming. Mr Sykes put it well himself in the beginning of the book when he wrote "There was something so peculiarly fascinating in that old belief, that "once upon a time" the world was less practical in its facts than now, less commonplace and hum-drum, less subject to the inexorable laws of gravitation, optics, and the like." Being from the Victorian era, they contain those quaint wordings that we don't use so often nowadays (of which I will include my favourites) and also makes reference to things that for whatever reason are not spoken of so much today, such as The Wandering Jew.

The only thing that I can fault the book on is that this edition has some poor punctuation and spelling mistakes, where a Welshman's name changes from Iola to lob and a d is typed as '(l'. Those aside, this is an interesting book of folklore and worth a read... and as promised, here are some tit-bits that caught my fancy:

  • Near the stile beyond Lanelwyd House they saw a company of fifteen or sixteen coblynau engaged in dancing madly.
  • There was a Bwbach belonging to a certain estate in Cardiganshire, which took great umbrage at a Baptist preacher who was a guest in the house, and who was much fonder of prayers than of good ale... it was continually... frightening the farm boy by grinning at him through the window.
  • A very long time ago, St. Patrick came over from Ireland on a visit to St. David of Wales... and as they were strolling by Crumlyn Lake conversing on religious topics in a friendly manner, some Welsh people who had ascertained that it was St. Patrick, and being angry at him for leaving Cambria for Eire, began to abuse him in the Welsh language, his native tongue. Of course such an insult could not go unpunished, and St. Patrick caused his vilifiers to be transformed into fishes; but some being females, were converted into fairies instead.
  • A shriek resounded through the air, awakening the echoes of the hills, as the butcher's bludgeon went through the goblin head of the elfin cow, and knocked over nine adjoining men, while the butcher himself went frantically whirling around trying to catch hold of something permanent.
  • There was a certain farmer who, while going early one morning to fetch his horses from the pasture, heard harps playing. Looking carefully about for the source of this music, he presently saw a company of Tylwyth Teg footing it merrily in a corelw. Resolving to join their dance and cultivate their acquaintance, the farmer stepped into the fairy ring. Never had man his resolution more thoroughly carried out, for having once begun the reel he was not allowed to finish it till years had elapsed. Even then he might not have been released, had it not chanced that a man one day passed by the lonely spot, so close to the ring that he saw the farmer dancing. "Duw catto ni!" cried the man, "God save us! but this is a merry one. Hi, holo! man, what, in Heaven's name, makes you so lively?" This question, in which the name of Heaven was uttered, broke the spell which rested on the farmer, who spoke like one in a dream: "O dyn!" cried he, "what's become of the horses?" Then he stepped away from the fairy circle and instantly crumbled away and mingled his dust with the earth.
And finally, some excerpts from my favourite chapter of all - Changelings:
  • A mother whose child had been stolen, and a changeling left in its place, was advised by the Virgin Mary to prepare a meal for ten farm-servants in an egg-shell, which would make the changeling speak. This she did, and the changeling asked what she was about. She told him. Whereupon he exclaimed, "A meal for ten, dear mother, in one egg-shell? I have seen the acorn before I saw the oak: I have seen the egg before I have seen the white hen: I have never seen the like of this." The mother replied, "You have seen too many things, my son, you shall have a beating." With this she fell to beating him, the child fell to bawling, and the fairy came and took him away, leaving the stolen child sleeping sweetly in the cradle.
  • Martin Luther described a changeling once as thus: "It would eat as much as two threshers, would laugh and be joyful when any evil happened in the house, but would cry and be very sad when all went well."
  • The veracious Prophet Jones testifies to a case where he himself saw... an idiot left in the stead of a son. Says Jones: "I saw him myself. There was something diabolical in his aspect," but especially in his motions. He "made very disagreeable screaming sounds," which used to frighten strangers, but otherwise he was harmless.
You can legally download British Goblins here

Legacy of Ashes

Legacy of Ashes is quite shocking. Through movies and books, we are presented with an image of the CIA that it is amazing and knows all. The truth of it would appear to be the opposite, that it consitently makes errors and knows very little. As I listened to the Audiobook rather than read the print edition I am unable to give precise examples from the text, but off of the top of my head, several things that I found astonishing were:
  • The sheer number of double agents from the USSR, Cuba, China etc who managed to work for the CIA
  • The CIA lying outright to the President on a number of occasions
  • Despite having far greater resources, not really having a clue about anything that the USSR was doing throughout its existence
  • Kissinger's involvement in installing dictators like Pinochet
  • Pretty much anything to do with the Middle East being incorrect
  • Blowing up the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade
There are plenty more stories in the book. In fact, it seems that the CIA never really got much right and competed against other US agencies rather than work toward the greater good (perhaps they need to read Egonomics).

Despite having an exhausting amount of information to cover, Weiner breaks each of the 40+ chapters into manageable chunks, each containing a different story with enough background data to make it feel like you are getting the inside story but not too much so that you are sapped down by it all. Quite frankly, this is an excellent book and should be read by anyone with an interest in the events of the second half of the 20th Century. It helps to dispel the myth that America is a gentle, noble country that acts out of a greater good and shows that even with the most resources, you are not always guaranteed to win against rivals with lesser. It also shows the benefit of forward planning, as arguably some recent events in the world would have been prevented had the CIA taken the time to consider long-reaching implications. Let's just hope that the message has finally gotten through.

New York Noir - Crime Photos From The Daily News Archive

New York Noir is a collection of photographs taken during the Film Noir period of the 20th Century. As the subtitle says, these photos concern crime. As a book of pictures, New York Noir is interesting enough, but it is when you look at it as a time capsule to how tabloid newspapers used to be that it really becomes fascinating. Through the photographs and the captions that accompanied them when they were printed, we can learn that it used to be perfectly fine to show dead bodies in newspapers, and that no effort was made to disguise police brutality (my favourite here was two shots of a criminal, one as he was being taken in and the other after he'd been 'questioned', looking a bit more lumpier in the face). Some of the headlines too are not quite what you'd expect nowadays, for instance, accompanying a shot of a murdered man is the headline 'Benny Latrino Gets The Message'.

The pictures themselves are also captivating - perhaps it is the black-and-white, or the fact that they are not as crisp and sharp as modern-day equivalents - and it can be easily done just turning the pages to look at long-gone people from the past. I didn't particularly care much for the introduction (far too much guff on 'art') and the first written section (too boring, given the subject, I want to see bodies, not text), but that's not what anyone buys a book like this for. Like the tabloids said themselves in their early days: crime sells.

New York Underground - The Anatomy Of A City

I actually read this in November but forgot to write about it then, so this will be a little shorter than most. In any case, New York Underground is concerned with all of the underground tunnels that lay beneath New York City. There are a multitude of different types of tunnels, from aqueducts to subways to passenger walkways. All of which are explored in an interesting fashion, complete with lots of pictures and the odd interesting fact (I recall one being that when a subway station beneath what became the World Trade Center was being built in the early 20th Century, they found part of a boat sunk below the surface). If, like me, you find a sweet kind of mystery in subterreanean holes, then this is a very interesting, and very nicely put together, book and should be on your list.


I have often wondered the cost of ego in all walks of life, both corporate and personal. How many times ego steps in and prevents a company from making the best decision must be almost uncountable. Thus I was pleased to find Egonomics, a book that shows that ego can be both a force for good as well as bad.

This would be classified as a management book, but the lessons inside would be just as applicable to use at home as well as the boardroom. Egonomics starts by informing us that "over half of all businesspeople estimate ego costs their company 6 to 15 percent of annual revenue". This would obviously be the negative side of ego's costs, and the first half of the book deals with explaining the four warning signs that the negative effects of an ego are taking hold. I don't think that I would be giving much away by listing them, and so here they are:
  • Being comparative (and how being too competitive can actually detract from performance)
  • Being defensive
  • Showcasing brilliance (and how that even if you have the best idea, ego can easily turn others off of it)
  • Seeking acceptance
I found these sections very interesting, as I recalled instances in my own career where I have exhibited some of these traits; recognising this has made me more aware and determined to reel it in in the future.

Luckily for us, the authors have included the three principles to keep an ego healthy. These may sound like common sense at first, but they tend to be things that we ask for in other people but tend to ignore in ourselves. The three principles are humility, curiosity, and veracity.

I found this book to be a well-constructed, informative read, and will definitely try to adhere to its points. It will definitely be on my shelf when I am a manager, and I would imagine will be frequently referred to throughout the next couple of years.

More Sex Is Safer Sex

I began this book by randomly choosing a couple of chapters to browse through. The ones that I chose were concerning child labour through the ages and how it is a necessary stage in industrialisation, and how statistically, families with daughters are more likely to divorce than those with sons. These chapters were genuinely thought provoking, and filled me with a great hope that More Sex Is Safer Sex would be a great read.

It turns out that by luck or chance, I picked some of the few interesting chapters in the book. As the book began, it was somewhat hit and miss, arguments that if more people had sex, there'd be fewer cases of AIDS (which I was willing to put my mind to and consider did make sense) tempered with ones that I found fascinating, such as how fat, ugly, short people earn less than tall or thin or attractive people. But as time went on, it seemed that ideas were being formulated just to provocative and different, such as firemen should be able to claim any property that they rescue, or that in order to make queues shorter, we should allow people to go to the front of the queue rather than the back. Some of these ideas seemed so outlandish that I questioned in my mind whether the author had been smoking crack.

Perhaps I just didn't get it. After all, in the preface the author states that 'This book will give you new insights about how the world works. Sometimes it might outrage you'. Seeking as it does to apply economics to every day life (such as cost-benefit or value), can one really take umbrage at theoretical musings? It would seem so, as two-thirds of my way through this tome I decided that the cost (2 hours or so) was not worth the benefit (reading another 100 or so pages of somewhat bollocks, tempered with the occasional thought-provoking idea), and as I had already met my value with the book ($4 from Barnes & Noble in a sale seemed to be worth the odd interesting chapter), I decided to stop.

Now that's how to apply economics to the real world!

The Affair Of The Poisons

The Affair Of The Poisons concerns itself with relating the details of a particularly interesting affair in France during the reign of Louis XIV. The details themselves are that initially, it was discovered that one noblewoman and her accomplice had poisoned and killed several individuals. This soon escalated when it emerged that several other members of the nobility had been in contact with the source of the poisons, and the King commissioned a special body to investigate the depth of the claims. Amid the accusations and discoveries made by the people initially accused and tortured, more and more members of the aristocracy and the King's court were implicated, some of whom did have murderous intent against spouses or rivals, but many more who were innocent such as the Marechal de Luxembourg and the King's mistress, M. de Montespan. Amidst the accusations of poisoning, a couple of conspiracies against the King were denounced, along with details of child sacrifice and Satanism. The extent of truth in these allegations is hard to tell, as there were several individuals such as the magician Lesage who gladly invented increasingly more lurid claims in order to avoid execution themselves.

I found this book very interesting. Anne Somerset paints a clear and interesting picture of many events pieced together from records and court accounts from the period. I had a further interest owing to the setting of the book, which involves many of the characters from the collection of books that Dumas wrote about the Three Musketeers and d'Artagnon entitled 10 Years After. Given the time period (1675-circa 1682) and the hysteria that the affair of the poisons created, it is easy to compare with another famous witch hunt of this era, the Salem witch hunts, as many claims were flimsy at best but all were investigated, with many innocent people either being sentenced or suffering slurs and stains upon their characters. The story itself reads like a Dumas novel in parts, especially concerning M. de Montespan and how close she came to being ruined, only for a hero to step in and save her (all whilst being completely unaware of the claims made against her). Perhaps people back then were more susceptible to hysteria (it has been documented, for instance, that between 1520 and 1630 in France there were 30,000 individuals labelled as werewolves); in any case, it is a fascinating story.

The author has made sure to include as many accounts from people existing at the time as possible. This has the benefit of including several interesting titbits and stories of the time, as well as attempting to show the story from all sides in order to find a balanced conclusion. Of the various morsels mentioned, the below were my favourites. They added a little wit and humour to the story, and as such I was happy to read them! Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone who thinks that it may interest them, it is well written and entertaining, and an interesting account of a French scandal.

Within France there was a widely held preconception that the Italians were a devious and untrustworthy race who habitually despatched their enemies by covert means.

The King's sister-in-law, Elisabeth Charlotte, Duchesse d'Orleans complained in 1702 that 'the people stationed in the galleries in front of our room piss in all the corners. It is impossible to leave one's apartment without seeing someone pissing.'

The Duc de Saint-Simon described an occasion when the eccentric Bishop of Noyon was overcome by such 'a great desire to piss' as he passed the chapel at Versailles that he entered the King's tribune and urinated over the balustrade, splattering the floor below.

A correspondent of the Comte de Bussy reported that Mmes de Saulx and de Tremouille had caused outrage when the defecated in their box at the theatre 'and then, to remove the evil smell, threw everything into the pit'.

A novel entitled La France Devennue Italienne (sodomy was known as 'the Italian vice') satirised the court for being infested with homosexuality.

The Comte de Bussy commented that... he would remember the maxim that honourable people often had to go without shoes.

The Comte de Bussy observed, 'Wit is necessary to make love last.'

One of Louvois's agents surreptitiously released a horde of black cats into a church where Mme de Soissons was attending a service, provoking panic among the congregation that a witch was in their midst.

The Comte de Bussy was sure however that 'she has never poisoned anyone, unless it's with her breath'.

La Cheron had saved the day: she urinated in her shoe and persuaded la Montigny to drink the contents, causing her to vomit.

Two pet bears belonging to Mme de Montespan found the door open and 'avenged their mistress' by devastating the apartment.

Only the Marquis de La Riviere defended the Princesse on the grounds that she was so plain that she could not possibly have had a lover. 'I would never have suspected the Princesse de Tingry of gallantry.' he tittered. 'For me her face had guaranteed her reputation'. He added, 'If I had a mistress like her I would never have feared anyone other than blind men for my rivals.'

A priest named Pere Robert was said... to have supplied clients with pieces of rope retrieved from the neck of a hanged man, which he had blessed with a consecrated wafer. He claimed that whoever possessed a section of this rope 'would make himself loved by all women, would win at gambling... and would succeed in all affairs'.

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