18 October 2016

The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester, UK, 1998

This book about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary is amazing, and contrary to what most would expect it reads like a thriller.

Although the Dictionary is of necessity at the centre of the novel, it shares that position with Dr William Chester Minor, who in spite of his unbelievably tragic life was a leading contributor to the Dictionary. Once it was decided that there was a need for a dictionary, comprising all words in the English language (Samuel Johnson's dictionary only included words he liked), quotes (using the words) and definitions (explaining the words) needed to be collected, and the population at large was asked to contribute.

Photo of Simon Winchester from

The other person of significance is Dr James Murray, who is now considered one of the 'towering figures in British scholarship' (p. 30 Penguin edition from 1999). As the first editor of the Dictionary, he gave almost his entire working life to the project and, in doing so, became inextricably involved with W C Minor. With an unbelievable thirst for knowledge, he taught himself several languages and read all that was available on subjects such as geography, science, archaeology, history and, of course, philology. He had a formidable mind, which came to be the force behind the Big Dictionary as it was called.

The American Civil War, the Irish question, murder, lunatic asylums and the wonder of words are all part of this wonderful, informative and entertaining novel. I warmly recommend it.

 Photo of Broadmoor Asylum from

04 October 2016

The Year of Living Dangerously by Christopher Koch, Australia, 1978

This is a great book, beautifully and intelligently written. The subject matter – Indonesia in 1965 – is close enough to our own time for many readers to remember the upheavals and the violence as President Sukarno sought to retain power while trying to remain straddled on the fence between the Left and Right factions of the government.

Hamilton, the Australian journalist at the centre of the novel, becomes slowly drawn into the strange world of Billy Kwan, a dwarf who is also Hamilton's photographer. Hamilton, together with other international journalists, meet regularly at the Wayang Bar – wayang being a Javanese word for a play using shadow puppets – to discuss the chaos that is inevitable. The wayang puppets become an important symbol as the situation, already dire at the beginning of the year, descends into turmoil where no one really knows what is happening or what is likely to happen.

Photo of Christopher Koch from
The characterization is extremely good, and Billy Kwan, for one, lives on in our memory even after we have reached the last page and closed the book. The many glimpses of Indonesian life – the landscape, the slums, the people, the beliefs, the smells – join together to produce an amazing backdrop to an amazing and thought-provoking story.

In the end, there is no good or bad, nothing is clear cut. As Koch writes: 'The West asks for clear conclusions, final judgements. A philosophy must be correct or incorrect, a man good or bad… '

The Year of Living Dangerously was made into a film by Peter Weir in 1982, with Mel Gibson starring as Hamilton.

                                                The photo from the film is from