Archive for October, 2013

Brought to BookA Book of English Essays, selected by W.E. Williams (Pelican 1942)

GlamourdämmerungTreasures of Nirvana, Gillian G. Gaar (Carlton 2011)

Highway to Hell – The Road, Cormac McCarthy (2006)

Solids and ShadowsAn Adventure in Multidimensional Space: The Art and Geometry of Polygons, Polyhedra, and Polytopes, Koji Miyazaki (Wiley-Interscience 1987) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)

Magna Mater MarinaThe Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Marine Fish and Sea Creatures, Amy-Jane Beer and Derek Hall (Lorenz Books 2007) (@ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Front cover of A Book of English Essays selected by W.E. WilliamsA Book of English Essays, selected by W.E. Williams (Pelican, 1942)

If we could always do exactly what we wanted, life would be less interesting and we’d discover much less. That applies to literature too. I wanted something to read, but I didn’t want to try this particular book. Nevertheless, faute de mieux, I did. And I’m glad I did, even though I didn’t like most of the essays in it. Too many of them seemed arch and affected, written to fill paper and earn money, not to say anything important or interesting. Joseph Addison, Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt are big names and were big disappointments. Robert Louis Stevenson is an even bigger name and was an even bigger disappointment. His essays don’t seem to live up to his fiction.

Perhaps I should be forced to try those essays again, because first impressions are often wrong. But even if I’ve missed something good there, I’ve found something good elsewhere. More than one essay was good, but one would have been enough to justify reading this book. I’d never heard of Arthur Clutton-Brock (1868–1924) before, but his essay on “The Defects of English Prose” was one of the most interesting I’ve ever read. I thought it would be about grammar and semantics; it was actually about style and personality. I like his ambition and confidence. He surveys centuries of one of the world’s great literatures and finds them wanting:

Yet still one dreams of a prose that has never yet been written in English, though the language is made for it and there are minds not incapable of it, a prose dealing with the greatest things quietly and justly as men deal with them in their secret meditations, seeming perhaps to wander, but always advancing in an unbroken sequence of thought, with a controlled ardor of discovery and the natural beauties of a religious mind. Johnson might have written it, if he had had a stronger sense of beauty and more faith in the flights of reason; Newman, if he had been a greater master of words and less afraid of his own questioning; Henry James, if he had exercised his subtlety on larger things. The best of our prose writers, living or dead, are not civilized enough or too much in love with something else, or not enough in love with anything, to write the prose we dream of. The English Plato is still to be. (“The Defects of English Prose”)

I’ve not liked Plato when I’ve tried him, but that is a thought-provoking judgment and Clutton-Brock makes it with skill and subtlety. J.B. Priestley’s essays were good too, though I started them not expecting much. Evelyn Waugh didn’t like him, after all, and though Waugh’s essays are better – and should have been represented here – Priestley is obviously worth more attention. I already knew the same about G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), but I’ve been neglecting his writing for too long. This book has shown me so, because I thought Chesterton’s three essays – “A Defence of Nonsense”, “A Piece of Chalk” and “A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls” – were the best things in it. He is a very good and very vivid writer whose writing seems impervious to age and fashion.

Hilaire Belloc (1870-1954) comes straight after Chesterton – they were two cheeks of one arse, someone once said about their shared Catholicism and anti-modernism – and he suffers by comparison. I still enjoyed his defence of “Crooked Streets” against rational town-planning and its destructiveness and arrogance. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who begins the book, is one of the few essayists in English who don’t suffer by comparison with Chesterton. He’s not as vivid or easy to read, but he’s still someone who illuminates the world and makes you glad to be part of it.

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Front cover of Treasures of Nirvana by Gillian G. GaarTreasures of Nirvana, Gillian G. Gaar (Carlton 2011)

A boxed book with “facsimiles of rare material” and a good guide to why Nirvana became so successful. I like their music, but it wasn’t enough on its own to take them right to the top. Successful bands have to appeal to the eye as well as the ear.* Mudhoney and the Melvins appeal to the latter, but not the former. Nirvana appealed to both. Like Jim Morrison before him, Kurt Cobain looked very good on camera. Even his flying hair did. He’s an eye-magnet in almost every photo here and would be even if you didn’t know who he was. But very few people will look at this book without knowing who he was and what happened to him, so his magnetism merely increases. Krist Noveselic and Dave Grohl look ordinary: Kurt looks special. And he’s sealed special for ever, because he died before he got old, just like Jim Morrison.

There’s a glamour to going before your time and Kurt went well before his. Seventy or eighty years too soon, or maybe much longer. Unless something big gets in the way, science and technology will extend the human life-span indefinitely for people who were, like him, born in and after the 1960s. But humans will stop being human in the process: man, as Nietzsche pointed out long ago, is something to be surpassed. The Deus Ex Machina is on his way: the electronically enhanced super-human who will have vastly increased powers of mind, memory and body. I don’t think Nirvana’s music will interest the D.E.M. much, but that’s one of the things that are still interesting about Nirvana. They’re the last of the real rockers. They grew up without the internet and came to fame while it didn’t matter much. That was part of their appeal: Washington State and Seattle were isolated places, lost in obscurity, far from the spotlights focussed on New York and Los Angeles. It wasn’t easy to learn about them. And there was more. Kurt and Krist came from an isolated part of Washington: Aberdeen, on the muddy banks of the Wishkah.

Treasures of Nirvana by Gillian G. Gaar (back cover)

The grungy design of this book tries to capture that distance and difficulty, using a lot of blur, smear and shadow. Kurt stayed in the shadow and stayed in Nirvana, young for ever. Krist and Dave have an afterlife and the book follows them there: Krist gets bald and Dave loses the scared-kid look he had in Nirvana and becomes the confident leader of Foo Fighters. The other big figure in the Nirvana story, Courtney Love, doesn’t develop at all here, because she gets only one photo, grinning a sharkish grin at the MTV Awards. That was enough for me, just as I assume it was for Gillian Gaar: marrying Courtney was one of the two big mistakes Kurt made in life. The other was becoming a heroin addict. But if his stomach problems were as bad as he said they were, maybe heroin extended his life rather than shortening it. His stomach problems are something else that seals him into the old days. I don’t think they were psychosomatic and even if they were, they were a sign of something badly wrong with his body. The brain is part of the body, after all. Kurt, like most people then and now, didn’t have much control over his brain. Drugs like lithium are a crude way of adjusting the way brains work.

Much stronger methods of adjustment and improvement are on their way. When they arrive, the human race will follow Kurt into history. Nirvana’s music used technology to sing about human flesh and its woes. When flesh combines with technology, Nirvana’s music probably won’t matter any more: the clamour-glamour of rock will be gone. I don’t think Kurt would mind. After all, he ended his life playing unplugged and looking back to the Middle Ages, not forward to the Deus Ex Machina. But there was also something medieval about the importance of paper in Nirvana’s story. Fans got real letters from bands and record companies in Nirvana’s day, not emails or tweets. The facsimiles here try to capture the way physical things mattered more back then: tickets, posters, flyers. So this book is about two vanishing things: flesh and paper. It’s not long and detailed like some Nirvana/Cobain biographies, but it’s worth a look while Nirvana and Kurt Cobain are still glamorous.

*Yes, apart from Brian Jones, the Rolling Stones looked odd or ugly, but that still appealed to their fans, because of its contrast with the Beatles.

Elsewhere other-posted:

• More Musings on Music

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Front cover of The Road by Cormac McCarthyThe Road, Cormac McCarthy (2006)

Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for The Road in 2007. The book is set in the aftermath of a world-wide cataclysm.

So is Stephen King’s The Stand (1978).

But The Road is much shorter than The Stand.

It makes up for this by being

much more pre




It is also much

less enter


Which is not to say that

The Road doesn’t have its




For example

(spoiler alert)

the bit where the



into a wood and find

a fire where

some folks (far from


have been preparing to



eat a








For me

this was a


out-loud mo


The “catamites” were pretty





If you take Cormac McCarthy


my brother (or


I think that

you need to

grow up.


But you











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Six Uncollected Stories by Saki

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