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Archive for October, 2014

Latest Reviews (23/x/2014)

Sky StoryThe Cloud Book: How to Understand the Skies, Richard Hamblyn (David & Charles 2008)

Wine WordsThe Oxford Companion to Wine, ed. Janice Robinson (Oxford University Press 2006)

Nu WorldsNumericon, Marianne Freiberger and Rachel Thomas (Quercus Editions 2014)

ThalassobiblionOcean: The Definitive Visual Guide, introduction by Fabien Cousteau (Dorling Kindersley 2014) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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The Cloud Book: How to Understand the Skies, Richard Hamblyn (David & Charles 2008)

If the best things in life are free, then clouds are high on the list. The sky is a giant book opened every morning and written with the story of the weather. The story can be can be beautiful, dramatic, awe-inspiring. Or dull, dreary, depressing. It’s both history and prophecy, describing what the weather has been and what it will be. Humans have been staring up at the story for millions of years, but the symbols in which it’s written weren’t made clear until very recently:
The Cloud Book by Richard Hamblyn

…in contrast to all other earthly phenomena, from microbes and minerals to the greatest plants and animals, all of which have been classified and reclassified many times over since early antiquity, clouds (at least in Western culture) remained uncatalogued and unnamed until the early nineteenth century when the Latin terms that are now in use – “cirrus”, “stratus”, “cumulus” and their compounds – were bestowed on them by Luke Howard (1772-1864), an amateur meteorologist from East London. (Introduction, pg. 9)

Precise description is an essential part of science, because it allows you to compare, contrast and classify. What the Swedish biologist Linnaeus had done for the relatively stable world of animals and plants, Howard did for the ever-shifting world of aerial vapour. Indeed, clouds are divided like living creatures into genera, species and varieties, all falling under three broad categories: low clouds, medium clouds and high clouds. So the size and complexity of the names can echo the size and complexity of the clouds themselves, like “Cirrus spissatus cumulonimbogenitus”, whose specification is “Dense cirrus, often in the form of an anvil, being the remains of the upper parts of a cumulonimbus cloud” (pg. 90). It has a code, CH3, a symbol (see table for examples) and an abbreviation, Ci spi cbgen.

So this book is an introduction to serious meteorology, but it’s full of beauty too. Howard’s science inspired and informed the art of painters like Constable and poets like Goethe and Shelley. All three men would have marvelled at the photographs here, which capture clouds from all around the world: CL5, Stratocumulus stratiformis is “dark, rolling layers of cloud” over “Oslofjord, Norway” (pg. 36); CM9 is “a chaotic sky over Bracknell in Berkshire” (pg. 80); and the CH3 mentioned above is “seen from Grande Anse Beach, Grenada” (pg. 90). But most of the named photos were taken somewhere in Britain: fluffy white cumulus humilis over the “Vale of Evesham, Worcestershire” (pg. 22); mottled and marching altocumulus stratiformis over “Ebbw Vale, Gwent” (pg. 68); white and wave-like altocumulus stratiformis duplicatus over “Mallaig, Scottish Highlands” (pg. 74); a “rare” cirrocumulus lenticularis against blue sky over “Painswick, Gloucestershire” (pg. 106). Most of the unnamed photos are presumably British too.

Modern geology got its start in Britain because rocks are so varied here. Perhaps modern meteorology got its start here for the same reason. Some climates are stable for months at a time. British weather can change from minute to minute, but, as James Bond muses in Live And Let Die (1954), England at least is also a country where you can take a walk every day of the year. This book is an excellent way to train your eyes for what you see when you look up. It also describes what you might see on a walk at night:

Appearing as thin, milky-blue or silvery waves high in the sky, on the fringes of space, NLCs [noctilucent clouds] look as mysterious as they in fact are: they remain the least understood clouds of all, the mechanics of their formation in such dry, clear, intensely cold conditions (-125ºC/-193ºF) having not yet been discovered, although many hypotheses have been advanced, including the idea that they seed themselves from meteorite debris, from dust blasted high into the atmosphere by major volcanic eruptions, or even from the constituent elements of space shuttle exhaust fumes. (“Noctilucent clouds”, pg. 121)

That’s in “Part 2” of the book, devoted to “Other Clouds and Effects”, like sun-pillars, coronae, halos, parhelia, crepuscular rays, contrails, Kelvin-Helmholtz waves, glories, lightning and rainbows. I haven’t seen all of those, but I saw a circumzenithal arc recently – “a band of bright prismatic colours” produced by sunlight refracting through “horizontally aligned cirriform ice-crystals” and resembling an “inverted rainbow” (pg. 131). I noted that it was directly overhead, but didn’t realize that it had to be so. Nor did I think that the time of day was important:

Typically a quarter-circle in shape, its colours, which are often brighter than those of the rainbow, run from blue near the zenith, down to red near the horizon. Due to the precise angle in which the refracted light exits the sides of the horizontal ice-crystals, CZAs cannot occur if the sun is more than 32.2º above the horizon, and the brightest arcs of all – which the cloud-writer Gavin Pretor-Pinney has archly dubbed the “cloud smile” – occur when the sun is exactly 22º above the horizon. (“Circumzenithal arc”, pg. 131)

So mathematics is obvious there, but it’s present everywhere in meteorology: clouds seem chaotic, but relatively simple rules underlie their formation and evolution. It’s just that there are a lot of continuous variables: temperature, humidity and so on. So complexity arises from simplicity. This book classifies and catalogues the chaos of complexity, explaining the why and where of one of the best and most beautiful things in life.

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The Oxford Companion to Wine edited by Janice RobinsonThe Oxford Companion to Wine, ed. Janice Robinson (Oxford University Press 2006) (third edition)

Another big book for another big subject: wine. Because it’s organized alphabetically by topic, you can open it anywhere and begin zigzagging through the world of wine. The antiquity of the world is reflected in the antiquity of the word, which entered English so long ago that it preserves the original pronunciation of Latin vinum, with initial “w”, not “v”. “Vine” is from the same root but comes from Old French. The word has deeper roots in Indo-European – “wiyana and wayana are quoted from the ancient Anatolian languages” – and may have cognates in Hebrew and Arabic. But what is its ultimate origin? “No theory is convincing,” concludes the linguist Dr Leofranc Shelford-Strevens, “except after a few glasses” (entry for “Wine”, pg. 768).

That’s a good name for someone writing about wine and that Johnsonian humour enlivens other entries: “wine writing” is a “parasitical activity undertaken by wine writers enabled by vine-growing and wine-making” (pg. 772) and “Siegerrebe” is a “modern German vine crossing grown principally, like certain giant vegetables, by exhibitionists” (pg. 630). Wine apparently encourages high spirits in its writers, not just its drinkers, but there’s also an entry for “bore, wine”. The next entry is for “borers”, about “beetles and their larvae”. Then comes the entry for “boron”, about an essential trace element. So three entries span sociology, entomology and chemistry. Each has a separate author too. This book had to be a collaboration, because no-one could possibly be an expert on all aspects of oenology, as the study of wine is called (from Greek oinos, whose earlier form is woinos).

So different entries have different flavours, like wine itself: simple or complex, sweet or astringent. All wine-making countries and regions have their own entries, from Alsace to Zimbabwe, from Georgia to Japan, and almost every conceivable aspect of wine and viticulture is discussed and described, from the gustatory and linguistic to the botanical and medical, from Dionysus and drunkenness to bottles and the shape of wine-glasses. You’ll learn here how the Greek writer Athenaeus (fol. 200 AD) wrote a book called Deipnosophistae, “The masters of the art of dining”, in which the “two most frequent topics are Homer and wine” (pg. 38). But Athenaeus isn’t systematic about wine: he assembles “curious facts”.

This book is systematic, but it has a lot of curious facts too. What are the differences between macro-, meso- and microclimate? They’re explained here. What did the Roman poet Martial think about Egyptian wine? His astringencies are quoted not just in translation, but in Latin too (pg. 429). Which Roman emperor ordered vineyards rooted up and which ordered them re-planted? Domitian (pg. 234) and Probus (pg. 548), respectively. Which wine did Napoleon drink to console his exile on St Helena? Constantia (pg. 193). Which wine is celebrated in the national anthem of its homeland? Tokaji (pg. 699) – the Hungarian anthem praises God for ripening wheat tokaj szőlővesszein, “in the grape fields of Tokaj”. But I couldn’t find anything on wine and the visual arts. It would have been good if they had been discussed and some wine-paintings and wine-sculptures had been included with the other photos. The closest the book comes is a photograph of a barrel cellar owned by the Mastroberadino firm in Campania, Italy, which incidentally shows a beautiful and mysterious painting on the roof. Why are the naked female figures hiding their faces? Who was the artist?

Dionysus (c. 70 A.D.) (see also)

Dionysus (c. 70 A.D.) (see also Prometheus Unbound)

You won’t learn that here. You won’t learn how to pronounce unfamiliar names and terms either, because no pronunciation keys are given. So no art, no articulation. Apart from that, this big book is worthy of its big subject. Is wine one of the glories of life? Some don’t think so: they go further, as the entry for “Rome, classical” reveals (pg. 589). “Vita vinum est!” proclaims Trimalchio in the Satyricon (late 1st century A.D.): “Life is wine!” Petronius may not have lived to drink himself, but he surely made his life better with wine. Two millennia later, you can make your wine better with the words in this book.

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Numericon by Marianne Freiberger and Rachel ThomasNumericon, Marianne Freiberger and Rachel Thomas (Quercus Editions 2014)

An easy-to-read introduction to some profound and difficult ideas. You can start climbing the foothills of Mount Maths here and train for the icy cliffs and avalanche-scoured slopes above. And perhaps the mountain rises for ever. There may be important mathematical questions that are impossible to answer. But some answers we already have, like the irrationality of √2 and the infinitude of the primes, are astonishing to contemplate. How are finite creatures able to discover facts about infinity? Logic is a lever that can move more than the universe. Euclid described 2,300 years ago how it could be used to prove that primes never ended: for every integer, there is a prime.

Numericon explains his proof, then goes on to describe how the German Georg Cantor (1845-1918) used logic to prove that there is more than one kind of infinity. In fact, there’s an infinite hierarchy of infinities, climbing endlessly into the metaphysical empyrean. That seems like an insane idea and Cantor did end his life in a sanatorium. He’s an extreme example of something Freiberger and Thomas note in their introduction: that mathematicians are often eccentric. It’s a strange subject that doesn’t come naturally to human beings. We can’t escape it, because our brains and bodies are governed by mathematics, but we don’t need to apply it explicitly and consciously to get through life. Those who lift the surface of reality and gaze upon its brilliant mathematical core can find that the light troubles and even subverts their brains.

And some avert their gaze. The German Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855) may have been the greatest mathematician who ever lived, but he declined to publish his revolutionary ideas about Euclid’s fifth axiom: that parallel lines never meet. New geometries arise if the axiom is eliminated, but Gauss didn’t claim the credit for discovering them. As this book describes, it was the younger mathematicians János Bolyai (1802-60) and the Russian Nikolai Lobachevsky (1792-1865). And Bolyai’s mathematician father had tried to warn his son off.

Mathematicians need a sense of adventure. They need recognition and support too, but sometimes even the great ones find both hard to win. Sometimes their greatness is part of the problem, because the work they produce is too new and powerful to be properly appreciated. The Norwegian Niels Henrik Abel (1802-29) died at 26 “from tuberculosis and in abject poverty” (pg. 183). The Frenchman Évariste Galois (1811-32) died even younger, at 21, fatally wounded in a duel. Perhaps it was an affair de cœur, perhaps a plot by his enemies: Galois was revolutionary in both his mathematics and his politics. The Indian Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) is another great who died young after making discoveries of permanent value.

This book discusses all three and many more, but mathematicians aren’t truly important. Mathematics is necessary; mathematicians are contingent. If advanced civilizations exist on other planets or in parallel universes, their art and literature might be entirely different from our own or might not exist at all. But their mathematics would be recognizable, whatever the nature of the brains that had discovered it. Advanced civilization is impossible to imagine without mathematics and although we can ignore mathematics if we choose, we’re missing something central to existence if we do. As Darwin said: it seems to give one an extra sense. It’s a mind’s eye that can see into infinity – and into infinitesimality.

As though to reflect the importance of mind in maths, this book has relatively few and simple illustrations. Maths can yield gorgeous complexity for real eyes, but the mind’s eye is more important. So this book is eye-candy for the mind. Eye-brandy too: maths can both dazzle you and make you drunk. It’s appropriate that Numericon echoes Necronomicon, because new worlds wait within the pages of both.

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Latest Reviews (9/x/2014)

HimmelangstNo Empty Chairs: The Short and Heroic Lives of the Young Aviators Who Fought and Died in the First World War, Ian Mackersey (Phoenix 2012)

Arioch’n’RollThe White Stuff: Archetype, Anomie and Allegorical Albinism in the Music of Hawkwind, 1972-81, Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (University of Nebraska Press 1996)

Jewels in the SkullThe Art Book, Phaidon (Second edition 2012) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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No Empty Chairs by Ian MackerseyNo Empty Chairs: The Short and Heroic Lives of the Young Aviators Who Fought and Died in the First World War, Ian Mackersey (Phoenix 2012)

Flight is beautiful, death is ugly. But they’ve always gone together. It was worst in the early days. Aviation at the beginning of the twentieth century was very dangerous: designers, engineers and pilots were still learning and their mistakes were often fatal. It took courage simply to get in a plane and take off. Flying and fighting demanded more courage still. This book describes how aerial combat began in the First World War. At first aircraft were used for observation, not for offence, but soon pilots started taking pistols and rifles aloft and shooting at each other. Next came machine-guns and inventions that allowed pilots to shoot through the propeller. Planes got faster, sturdier and more reliable. As they got less dangerous, they got deadlier.

Like the Second World War, which began with prop-planes and ended with jets and rockets, the First World War accelerated the technology of aviation. The first planes were like giant kites with engines attached. They could fall apart if flown fast or handled roughly. By the end of the war, acrobatics were not just routine, but essential. One thing didn’t change: the brains and bodies of the men who had to fly the fast-evolving planes:

Flying in unheated, open cockpits with inadequate clothing as high as 24,000 feet in winter temperatures approaching minus 50 degrees Centigrade, made worse by propeller-driven wind chill, they suffered such intense cold that the foul-smelling whale oil they smeared on their faces couldn’t prevent icicles forming on their noses or frostbite from peeling skin off their cheeks. […] In the frenzied manoeuvres of dog-fighting they were subjected to extraordinarily high G-forces that caused them to black out and sometimes burst vessels in their eyes. They got ruptured eardrums from the abrupt pressure changes in swooping dives of thousands of feet. They were afflicted by vertigo and airsickness that had them vomiting in their cockpits; by agonising gas-filled bowels that could be relieved only by releasing copious blasts of wind. On the ground most of them lived unhealthy, largely sedentary lives and, unsurprisingly, they drank and smoked heavily. Twenty-four-old pilots often began to look forty. (ch. 26, “The Spent Capital of Courage”, pg. 265)

And often died before they were twenty-five. Although casualties among ground troops were far higher, there were far more more men fighting on the ground, so the odds against survival were worse in the air. During “Bloody April” in 1917, the “average life expectancy of a subaltern [novice pilot] had shrunk to eleven days” (ch. 27, “The Working-Class Heroes”, pg. 272). All fighting men risked bullets and high explosive in the war, but there were horrors unique to the different branches of military service. Soldiers could drown in fetid, freezing mud; pilots could burn alive in a plummeting aircraft. That’s why some of them continued to take pistols aloft: to shoot not the enemy but themselves if their planes began to burn.

The only other way out in that situation was to jump out and fall to one’s death. Parachutes were never issued to British pilots and were used only late in the war by the Germans. The legend is that they were deliberately withheld to discourage cowardice and the “unnecessary abandonment of aircraft”. But Mackersey says that no order to that effect has ever been discovered and convincingly argues that the blame rested with official inertia, ignorance and lack of imagination.

The pilots themselves didn’t lack it. They often dreamed of their own deaths. The “Irish working-class ace” Mick Mannock (1887-1918) had nightmares about dying in a “flamerino”, his apotropaic nickname for a death-fall in a burning aircraft. As Mackersey laconically says: “One eventually claimed him” (ch. 28, “Flamerinoes”, photo section). Perhaps Mannock let himself die, consciously or otherwise: the strain of risking death can begin to seem worse than death itself. Guy de Maupassant explored that idea in his story “A Coward” (1884) and Mackersey provides a real example: a flight commander who was ordered to lead a “low-level bombing raid on an enemy aerodrome”. He had an “excellent chance of surviving” and would win the Military Cross if he succeeded. But he refused the order and, threatened with a court martial, shot himself through the head (“Waning of the Spirit”, pg. 307).

Drink and debauchery were less extreme responses to Himmelangst, “heaven-fear”, as great fear is called in German. This is one of the more unusual footnotes to children’s literature in English:

Lieutenant William Earl Johns of 55 Squadron, later (writing under the name Captain W.E. Johns) to become celebrated as the creator of the immortal pilot adventurer James Bigglesworth, the hero of more than a hundred Biggles books for boys, found himself in a hospital in France suffering from both syphilis and gonorrhoea. (ch. 19, “They Also Served”, pg. 201)

The Biggles books were bowdlerised after their early appearances in an adult aviation magazine, but are an excellent guide to the exhilaration and horror of air-combat. And also to the daily lives of British pilots, who constantly played practical jokes and ran competitions with each other and other squadrons. Mackersey devotes a chapter to “The ‘Bloody Wonderful Drunks’” (pp. 181-9), violent, hard-drinking parties in which furniture and crockery were destroyed, joints strained and limbs broken: “A puzzled American pilot attached to No. 85 Squadron commented: ‘These Englishmen sure have a funny idea of a party. They want to smash everything.’” (ch. 18, pg. 187).

This was an extension of life at public school and university, where many of the pilots had been before being taught to fly by stuttering, shell-shocked instructors and thrown into combat. Did the Germans behave in a similar way? Mackersey doesn’t say, but he describes the careers of the German aces Oswald Boelcke, Erwin Böhme, Max Immelmann and, most famous of all, the Red Baron Manfred von Richthofen. All four died in combat, like the British aces Albert Ball, Arthur Rhys Davies, Eric Lubbock and James McCudden. These men foresaw their own deaths and continued to fly. Their courage and skill won them permanent fame as Knights of the Air, flying far above the mud, filth and mechanized slaughter of the trenches.

But Mackersey also discusses the wives, girlfriends and families of the aces. He covers every aspect of aerial combat in the First World War, from fighters and balloons to Zeppelins and bombers, from pilots and observers to mechanics, instructors and aircraft designers like Anthony Fokker (1890-1939), the Dutchman whose expertise was turned down by the British and French before being accepted by the Germans. No Empty Chairs is a detailed history of a fascinating and horrific period, when the heavens turned hellish and a beautiful invention was put to some very ugly ends.


Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

World Wide Wings – The Big Book of Flight, Rowland White

Mud FeudTrench: A History of Trench Warfare on the Western Front, Stephen Bull

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The Law Of Chaos by Jeff GardinerThis is a guest-post by Zac Ziali…


The Law of Chaos: The Multiverse of Michael Moorcock, Jeff Gardiner (Visceral Visions 2014)

Wow. To be honest, I was gobsmacked when I saw that a book interrogating issues around Michael Moorcock was appearing through Visceral Visions (a proud and passionate imprint of Headpress Journal). I would never have guessed that a writer as good as Mike would appeal to anyone in the Headpress community. Plus, Moorcock fans tend to be of feral intelligence and fetid individuality – neither of which qualities have I particularly associated with Headpresseans in the past…

It just goes to show how you can misjudge folk, no? Anyhow, that radical overturning of my twisted preconceptions aside, what’s the book like, hermeneutically speaking? Mike Moorcock has (as you might expect) received a lot of attention from some p-r-e-t-t-y high-powered academic folk in recent decades (e.g. Miriam Stimbers*). Would Jeff Gardiner be able to say anything new? And (equally importantly) would he be able to say it in accessible prose? Thankfully, the answers are “Damn” and “Right”. Whether you’re a fan of pastily pathogenic Stormbringer-swinger Elric of Melniboné and other figures in the “Eternal Champion” series and/or of Moorcock’s “serious” literary fiction (Mother London, Pascaglione Turnside), this study of his work has to be classified under “Essential Reading”.

Yup, what Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy were to world literature in the nineteenth century, Michael Moorcock and Héctor Sarasuebo have been to world literature in the post-war period. Kinda like a tradition being handed on, really. But there’s more to come, mebbe. Is it too much to hope that Visceral Visions will follow this book up with summat on Sarasuebo? I passionately hope so not…


Passionately pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Beard TalesThe Devotee of Ennui by Alan Moore

#BooksThatShouldNotBe – hybrid children watch the sea…

I Am A KameraMezzogiallo: Ferality. Fetidity. Eastern Europe. by David Kerekes


*The White Stuff: Archetype, Anomie and Allegorical Albinism in the Music of Hawkwind, 1972-81, Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (University of Nebraska Press 1996)

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