Archive for July, 2013

StellissimusThe Cosmic Gallery: The Most Beautiful Images of the Universe, Giles Sparrow (Quercus 2013)

Eyck’s EyesVan Eyck, Simone Ferrari (Prestel 2013)

Dealing Death at a DistanceSniper: Sniping Skills from the World’s Elite Forces, Martin J. Dougherty (Amber Books 2012)

Serious StimbulationCleaner, Kinder, Caringer: Women’s Wisdom for a Wounded World, edited by Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (University of Nebraska Press 2013)

Keeping It GweelGweel and Other Alterities, Simon Whitechapel (Ideophasis Press 2011) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)

Ave Aves!Collins Bird Guide: The Most Complete Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe (second edition), text and maps by Lars Svensson, illustrations and captions by Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterström (HarperCollins, 2009) (@ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)

Flesh and FearUnderstanding Owls: Biology, Management, Breeding, Training, Jemima Parry-Jones (David & Charles, 1998) (@ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)

Hit and SmithSongs that Saved Your Life: The Art of The Smiths 1982-87, Simon Goddard (Titan Books 2013) (@ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Front cover of The Cosmic Gallery by Giles Sparrow
The Cosmic Gallery: The Most Beautiful Images of the Universe, Giles Sparrow (Quercus 2013)

I’ve seen some of the images here on-line, but they’re better in a book. The resolution is higher and books satisfy the sense of touch and even the sense of smell in a way electronic media don’t and won’t for some time. You can leaf through The Cosmic Gallery, twist and turn the book as you please and enjoy the contrast between the ultra-modern photographs and the ancient way they are presented. The word “book” may be related to “beech”, because beeches have detachable bark that’s easy to write on. So The Cosmic Gallery combines past and present – and in more ways than one. The gorgeous star-fields here are records of not just of prehistory but of pre-humanity, because the light that made them had been travelling for millions of years when it was captured by human technology.

Some of star-photographs are so colourful and so full of grandeur, distance and antiquity that you can feel them growing like cathedrals in your head as you look at them. But their visual power isn’t accidental. These images aren’t intended purely as objective scientific records:

This book is in many ways a celebration of these amazing technological advances [in photography and computing] that have lately transformed our understanding of the universe. And yet we should not forget that the images on these pages are just as much a product of human artistry as the cave-paintings of Lascaux or the drawings of Lord Rosse [an Irish astronomer who made famous drawings of galaxies in the mid-nineteenth century]. Not only are these technical achievements an art in their own right, but also the representation of data gathered by a giant telescope or distant spacecraft is still ultimately a matter of human choice. Many of the images here make use of false or representative colours to highlight certain wavelengths or certain structures, or to bring entire invisible worlds within the narrow limits of our perception. (Introduction, pg. 11)

The star-photos are the most awe-inspiring and beautiful in the book. Some of the images from the solar system, being nearer to home and closer to the human scale, are almost domestic by comparison. But one of them reminds you of the vast scale of the solar system too: a now-famous shot of Saturn and its intricate halo of rings, taken by the Cassini probe as it looked sunward (pp. 148-9). To the left, “just inside the G ring at the ten o’clock position”, is a “pale blue dot”, easy to overlook, easy to ignore amid the splendour of the Saturnian rings. The dot is a planet called Earth, scene for all the horrors and heights of mankind. It’s a powerful reminder of how small we are even on a much-less-than-cosmic scale. But as C.S. Lewis pointed out: the ability to feel small is possible only to big creatures. Neither ants nor elephants are awed by the size, complexity and age of the universe, because neither ants nor elephants can appreciate them.

Nor can they appreciate the mathematics that permeates the universe and that ultimately is the universe. The patterns here are sometimes huge and spectacular, but the forces that shape dunes on Mar (pg. 86, 174) are shaping dunes on Earth too. And the unpredictability of a water-thread, falling, twisting and sputtering from a half-closed tap, is seen in Saturn’s chaotic satellite Hyperion, which has “no set rotation period, or even axis of rotation” (pg. 168). The swirl of colours in a close-up of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot (pp. 76-7) reminds me of swirling paint in a Francis Bacon; the “writhing mass of cells and tendrils” in sunspots (pg. 172) might almost be competing colonies of bacteria in a Petri dish, or even melted cheese on a pizza. From fire to ice, from dust to gas, from clouds to ultra-violet light, from sun-spots to melted cheese: Mathematica Magistra Mundi, Mathematics the Mistress of the World, oversees it all.

She also oversees the brains of the men – and it has been overwhelmingly men – responsible for designing and building the technology that has captured these images and brought them to the coffee-tables of the world. If we are here to go, as Brion Gysin claimed, then this book presents the looks before the leaps.

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Front cover of Van Eyck by Simone FerrariVan Eyck, Simone Ferrari (Prestel 2013)

Even if you look at the paintings in this book so closely that your nose touches the paper, you’re still looking at them across a vast distance: the centuries that separate the highly religious, proto-scientific age of Jan Van Eyck (c. 1390-1441) from our own post-Christian, science-saturated age. We can’t see them as Van Eyck meant them to be seen and his contemporaries did see them, because the old beliefs and certainties have vanished or changed. Perhaps the portraits – including his own shrewd, thin-lipped and highly intelligent face, watching with careful, observant eyes beneath a red turban – have best ridden out the centuries. But what do the Madonnas and Annunciations mean now? Not what they meant once: Protestantism and secularism have trampled on Van Eyck’s Catholic world.

By doing that, they also trampled on the paganism preserved in Catholicism. I get a strong sense of Dionysian joy from paintings like the polyptychic Ghent Altarpiece of 1424-32. Van Eyck was using Christian symbols to celebrate an un-Christian love of the earth and its secular splendours: light, colour, jewels, music, living flesh, rich fabrics and luxuriant hair. The Deësis that dominates the altarpiece, “an iconic representation of Christ enthroned, flanked by the Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist”, has a stern-faced, tiara-wearing, fully bearded Christ, but there’s a sense of personal or private mythology in the Adoration of the Lamb below it, where the Lamb bleeds into a chalice atop an altar and an angel-topped fountain plays amid the worshippers:

…in front of the Lamb stands the Fountain of Life, which is referred to in Revelation. Crowds are thronging to pay homage to the Lamb, the Savior of Mankind: Apostles, Prophets, virgins, saints, Fathers of the Church and martyrs. The mystic scene is depicted in a paradisiacal landscape full of botanical detail, depicting flowers from all over the world, including valerian, lily of the valley, narcissi, lilies, basil and poppies. Van Eyck has moved away from the medieval style towards an authentic representation of nature, down to the most minute detail. (pg. 50)

The Annunciation by Jan Van Eyck 1433

The Annunciation (1433)

Van Eyck didn’t take the crazed and disturbing excursions of his near-contemporary Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516), but there are hints of Bosch here and there in his art and hints of heterodoxy too. More obvious are the precision and accuracy of Eyck’s eyes and the skill with which he captured what he saw with his fingers and brush. That realism would appear, even more highly developed, in artists like Dürer and Vermeer, as the forces we can see stirring in Van Eyck’s art begin to exert their full strength.

For Van Eyck is important not just artistically and culturally, not just as a witness to vanished piety: he was one of the midwives of science, because his painting depended on mastery not just of art but of technology. He was the great pioneer of painting in oils and the richness and detail of his paintings still pay tribute to the chemical skills that allowed him to capture light and shape on canvas. The Italian biographer Vasari credits him with the invention of oil-painting: “It was first invented in Flanders by Johann of Bruges” (Van Eyck in Close-Up, pg. 138). This is significant in uncomfortable ways. I was careful above to call our own age “post-Christian”, rather than “post-religious”. Religion in disguised forms is still very strong, as would soon be apparent if Simone Ferrari, the Italian art historian who wrote this book, had spoken the full truth about Van Eyck. He wasn’t special just as an artistic genius, but as a white male north-western European. If Ferrari had said that, she would have punished for it rather in the way Galileo was punished for challenging the reality-denying religion of his day.

But the truth is that Van Eyck’s genius grew out of his genetics and the individualism fostered in his small corner of the world by the church’s prohibition on cousin marriage. In-breeding leads to societies that look inward; outbreeding leads to societies than look outward, not just sociologically but philosophically and epistemologically too. Van Eyck’s art was an early fruit of what might might called extraspection; Protestantism and science, both foreshadowed in Van Eyck, were later fruits; and the fruit will turn to ashes when civil war breaks out in Europe because of mass immigration. Individualist nations have been relatively easy for tribal ideologues to corrupt with universalist snake-oil. Van Eyck and his contemporaries began the process, but they would not have accepted Muslim migration. They would have been right. And though Islam has overseen some great art and architecture, and still has a calligraphic tradition that surpasses anything in Europe, it has never produced a Van Eyck.

And I don’t think Van Eyck ever produced an image more beautiful and inspiring than the rainbow-winged angel in The Annunciation of c. 1433-5. Smiles are rare in art from this period and the Virgin Mary herself is both unsmiling and plain as she receives the news that she will bear a divine child. But the angel is beautiful and smiles radiantly, crowned with gems and clad in an intricately pleated robe. That painting alone might secure Van Eyck’s reputation and Van Eyck alone makes Europe worth preserving. We can’t look at his paintings with his eyes any more, but his genius and importance are still plain to see and his legacy is still ours to defend.

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Front cover of Sniper: Sniping Skills from the World's Elite Forces by Martin J. DoughertySniper: Sniping Skills from the World’s Elite Forces, Martin J. Dougherty (Amber Books 2012)

Variety is the spice of life. It’s also the spice of reading. I wouldn’t want to look at books like this regularly, but once in a while is good. Sniping, or shooting at long range from hiding, is an interesting topic in a number of ways: historically, strategically, psychologically, biologically, mathematically. And this book – subtitled an “SAS and Elite Forces Guide” to make it even more attractive to psychotics, psychopaths and spice-seekers – is a good introduction to the art of dealing death at a distance. It’s a well-designed mixture of line-drawings and uninspired but easy-to-read text:

As early as the 1770s, the term “sniper” was in use … although the context was different than today. The term originated in the sport of hunting small birds, of which the snipe was one of the hardest to hit. Thus a “sniper” was an extremely accomplished hunter who won the respect of his peers, and the term came to be applied in the same context as other words such as sharpshooter or marksman. (“Part One: The Sniper”, ch. 1, “A Brief History of Sniping”, pg. 18)

As he describes the development and techniques of sniping, Martin J. Dougherty also describes some famous snipers, like the Finn Simo Häyhä (1905-2002), nicknamed “The White Death” for the hundreds of casualties he inflicted when the Red Army invaded Finland at the beginning of the Second World War. Snipers are valuable not merely because they have a higher kill-ratio than an average soldier, but because their kills are often more harmful to the enemy: they try to target officers, radio-operators and other specialists. But a sniper’s most valuable target is often an enemy sniper, so snipers sometimes fight duels, like that between the Russian Vassili Zaitsev (1915-91) and (perhaps) a German called Major Erwin Koenig during the Battle of Stalingrad.

But sometimes enemy snipers are best left alone:

During the Vietnam War, US troops positioned near Da Nang came under fire at the same time every day by a particularly persistent enemy sniper who became known as Five O’Clock Charlie. Various attempts to eliminate the sniper having failed, the troops were in the process of moving a 106mm (4.17in) recoilless rifle up to the top of a hill when the realization came that this sniper had not actually managed to hit anyone. Rather than blast his suspected position with 106mm high-explosives, it was decided to leave him alone in case he was replaced by someone more competent. (“Part Three: Snipers in Action”, ch. 12, “The Effect of the Shot”, pg. 290)

So that sniper became funny rather than frightening, though I have to wonder whether his missed shots were deliberate rather than incompetent. Effective snipers are certainly frightening, so sniping becomes a branch of psychological warfare:

The ordinary soldier often has no way to respond … and this is a most demoralizing position to be in. Even in fairly low-threat areas there is always a suspicion that a sniper may, even now, be drawing a bead. … A lone sniper can hold up a large body of troops for some time. There have been cases of companies or even battalions halted for lengthy periods by a few shots. (“The Effect of the Shot”, pg. 291)

This fear means that capture is more dangerous for a sniper than for an ordinary soldier: “combat troops … have a special hatred for enemy snipers, especially if they have recently taken casualties from sniping” (“Part Three: Snipers in Action”, ch. 8, “The Sniper in the Field”, pg. 196). So a good sniper needs to be good at much more than shooting: he has to be able to move into position and fire without being seen. Camouflage and concealment are essential parts of a sniper’s training. But he needs to be able to improvise too: Simo Häyhä used to “hold snow in his mouth to prevent his breath condensing and giving away his position” (ch. 1, pg. 34).

In deserts, jungles or cities, different techniques are needed but some things don’t change: snipers always need patience, coolness and good judgment. This is where biology comes in: snipers are drawn disproportionately from certain races and sub-races. The book has an appendix listing “Top Snipers from the American Revolutionary War to the Present” and it’s no surprise to find Scottish and Irish surnames like Murphy, Ferguson, Hulme, Mawhinney and McGuire. Furthermore, ghillie suits, the camouflage outfits that mimic vegetation and break up the human outline, were invented in Scotland for stalking deer.

More exotic surnames might have been in the appendix if some races were less clannish and had fought larger wars:

Afghan tribesmen have managed to achieve a surprising degree of accuracy with home-made flintlock weapons called jezails. These weapons outranged the muskets of British infantry, and some remain in use today. (ch. 1, “A Brief History of Sniping”, pg. 19)

This book also talks a lot about rifles and, in the final section, about the ways bullets pulp flesh, shatter bone and destroy internal organs. Or not destroy them: Dougherty also discusses the economics of killing versus wounding. A dead soldier is often far less costly than a wounded one. Dead men don’t fight, but they don’t have to be cared for either.

Less grotesque and in some ways more interesting is the question of how bullets get to the target. Firing at long range is affected by things that soldiers firing at close range don’t have to take into account:

On a very long shot, wind calculations become highly complex. The strength and even the direction of the wind can vary over the distance covered by a long shot, and there may also be eddies around the corners of buildings and other objects. Air temperature and humidity also affect a shot by changing the amount of drag the air exerts on a bullet as it passes through. … A sniper needs to be able to estimate the aggregate effect of these many factors on his shot at the precise moment he squeezes the trigger. The only way to learn this is from experience. … All snipers are trained to estimate wind speed from the movement of vegetation or litter, and how this will affect a bullet in flight. Yet, even with all this knowledge, picking an aim-point is something of a “black art”, with some snipers being instinctively better at it than others, sometimes without really understanding why they can fit all the pieces together to make a perfect shot. (“Part Two: The Making of a Sniper”, ch. 6, “Marksmanship”, pg. 164)

It’s the black art of training white matter: of supplying the brain with repeated experiences and allowing it to form implicit rules from them. The speed and efficiency with which these rules are formed and then applied will be related to the intelligence of the sniper. It’s not a job for stupid men and other groups are excluded too: the reckless, on the one hand, and the squeamish, on the other. Snipers have to see and understand the effects of their bullets in a way ordinary soldiers don’t.

But brain-training and bullet-aiming are mathematical processes no less than ballistics and bone-shattering. Sniping itself is one of the variables fed into the vast calculus of war, which is part of the even bigger calculus of history. Good snipers must be worth much more than their weight in gold. But the Iraq war is discussed and illustrated in this book and prompts me to raise a dangerous idea. The most cost-effective use of American or British snipers in recent history might have been to shoot neo-conservatives rather than Iraqi insurgents or members of the Taliban. One bullet, one Bush, Blair or Obama?

Alas, if you like the sound of that, then monitoring-devices hidden in this review have already beamed your details to all relevant agencies and a drone is speeding on its way. Sniping is centuries old now, drones are much more recent. But both are expressions of a very old phenomenon: war. Thanks in part to the neo-conservatives, who like mass immigration as much as their liberal opponents do, that phenomenon may return to Europe and America. If so, sniping will come with it and books like this will become more than spice in a diet of reading.

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Cleaner, Kinder, Caringer: Women’s Wisdom for a Wounded World, edited by Dr Miriam B. Stimbers, with contributions by Donna Haraway, bell hooks, Winnie Mandela, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Germaine Greer, Laurie Penny, Aung San Suu Kyi, Dame Onora O’Neill, Dr Mikita Brottman, Polly Toynbee, Glenys Kinnock, Joan Jay Jefferson and others (University of Nebraska Press 2013)

I find intelligence attractive in a woman, which is why I don’t dare open this book. I’m tempted (heavens, how I’m tempted!), but my system would never stand the strain…

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