Archive for November, 2014

Latest Reviews (15/xi/2014)

Ai Luv YewThe Bonsai Bible: The Definitive Guide to Choosing and Growing Bonsai, Peter Chan (Hamlyn 2014)

Starway to HeavenGuide to the Pyramids of Egypt, Alberto Siliotti, preface by Zahi Hawass (White Star Publishers 2000)

Escape and EssenceThe Wooden Horse, Eric Williams (Pen & Sword 2013)

Aspects of the AnnihilatorSub-Machine Gun: The development of sub-machine guns and their ammunition from World War I to the present day, Maxim Popenker and Anthony G. Williams (Crowood Press 2011)

Northanger AbyssJane in Blood: Castration, Clitoridolatry and Communal Cannibalism in the Novels of Jane Austen, Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (University of Nebraska Press 2014)

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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The Bonsai Bible by Peter ChanThe Bonsai Bible: The Definitive Guide to Choosing and Growing Bonsai, Peter Chan (Hamlyn 2014)

In “Slug Is A Drug”, I claimed that Innsmouth was an ideal place to live because it was by the sea and had a river running through it. But even as I said that, I knew I was only two-thirds right. One vital ingredient was missing: trees. Living in a forest with a river by the sea would be best. Innsmouth was surrounded by salt marsh, not trees.

But even in Innsmouth there would be a way to enjoy the shapes, colours and scents of a forest: bonsai. When bonsai are grown right, they offer no sense of scale, either in space or in time. What looks like a tall tree, ready to house squirrels and flocks of chattering birds, might sit comfortably on a windowsill. And what looks gnarled and centuries old, tortured by salt winds on a sea-cliff, might have been created in much less than a lifetime. With bonsai, ars est celare artem: “the art is to conceal the art”. The trees should look natural in every way but one: their size. But you can’t simply plant a seed in a pot and let it grow, because it won’t grow right. Bonsai is really a form of sculpture, sometimes of living wood, sometimes of wood that’s dead by design:

Bonsai driftwood carvings, which seek to replicate the hollow trunks and deadwood found on trees in nature, have become very popular in recent years, the world over. The fashion has been stimulated by the great Japanese bonsai artist Masahiko Kimura, whose carved masterpieces are sculptures in their own right.

Jin is the term for deadwood on a branch, while shari refers to a stripped trunk effect. […] To achieve the authentic, white, bleached effect seen on some bonsai, apply lime sulphur or bleach to the dry, dead wood. Once the driftwood effect has been created, the wood should in any case be preserved by applying lime sulphur to the wood once or twice a year when the weather is dry. (“Jins and Sharis”, pg. 33)

This book is like its subject: small but enchanting. It describes the history, techniques and terminology of bonsai, then catalogues the suitable species, outdoor and indoor, flowering and non-flowering, from Acacia to Zanthoxylum, from mimosa to yew. The photographs are beautiful, like the red wave of a “Japanese maple Acer palmatum in its autumn colour grown in the semi-cascade style” (pg. 106), and the advice is concise but detailed. Bonsai can attract pests and need to be fed and watered right. They’ve even had political enemies. What was invented in China hasn’t always flourished there:

The Chinese loved the art of bonsai, but during the 1950s and until the 1980s it was nearly extinguished by the communist regime, which regarded growing bonsai as a revisionist and bourgeois pastime. It is only in the last few decades that the Chinese authorities have started to encourage the practice of bonsai again, and now it is once more a thriving and vibrant art form. (“What is a bonsai?”, pg. 11)

It’s also a thriving business: “almost all the indoor bonsai sold around the world today come from China” (pg. 12). Whether you want to buy one or grow one, this book is a good place to start.

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Guida alle Piramidi d'Egitto Alberto SiliottiGuide to the Pyramids of Egypt, Alberto Siliotti, preface by Zahi Hawass (White Star Publishers 2000)

When Herodotus was young, the pyramids were ancient. That was in the fifth century B.C., when the pyramids were already two millennia old. And if that’s not astonishing enough, consider how long the pyramids had been in the making. Not just the building: the evolution of a civilization that could conceive and complete them. Homo sapiens was not capable of building pyramids when he first emerged in sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, some modern human races still aren’t. Something special took place in the populations that migrated into the Nile delta and Mesopotamia. It probably centred on something much smaller but much more significant than the pyramids: the invention of writing.

If literacy enhanced reproductive success, it would have altered the genetics of Egypt, raising intelligence, enhancing foresight, improving the ability to delay gratification. All of those were necessary for the construction of those mountains of stone that have awed men for more than four millennia. Shelley’s famous poem about the vanity of megalomaniac monuments was based on the legs and “shattered visage” of an Egyptian statue. But the poem doesn’t apply to the pyramids:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away. (Ozymandias, 1818 )

A lot remains in Egypt beside the pyramids, which number far more than the famous three at Giza. And that’s also home to the mysterious and oneiroleptic Sphinx. But this is really a study of two great civilizations: the ancient Egyptian one and the modern European one that began to study its predecessor and eventually deciphered its forgotten hieroglyphs. The mountainous bulk of the pyramids is founded on minute symbols, because civilization can’t exist without record-keeping and bureaucracy. That demands counting and the pyramids are monuments not just to the pharaohs, but also to mathematics:

In fact the British museum has a famous mathematical papyrus, known as the Rhind Papyrus, which dates back to the Second Intermediate Period [1750-1550 B.C.] and includes a series of arithmetic and geometry problems such as: “A pyramid is 93 cubits and 1/3 high. What is the angle if the height of its face is 140 cubits?” A study of this papyrus has, among other things, made it clear that the Egyptians were familiar with and made practical use of Pythagoras’ theorem, although they never theorized or enunciated it. (“The Construction of a Pyramid”, pg. 41)

Guide to the Pyramids of Egypt by Alberto Siliotti

(English edition)

The Greeks were awed by Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilization, but they built on what they inherited from their predecessors. Unlike the Egyptians, they didn’t just practice maths, but proved it. Proof is a leap into the abstract and the infinite that the Egyptians never seem to have made. Greek sculpture and stonework achieved new freedom too. It wasn’t static and stylized like the sculpture here. But Egyptian sculpture has its own genius and the Greeks never matched the pyramids, only marvelled at them.

And misinterpreted them. The pyramids weren’t simply commemorations of the pharaohs, but stairways to heaven for their souls. Literally so, with the early step pyramids, but later:

As religious thought developed, it was no longer considered necessary to have a celestial highway, for the steep sides of the pyramids, a materialization of the rays of the sun in stone, also permitted the pharaoh to make his heavenly ascent. (“Egypt in the Old Kingdom”, pg. 13)

So pyramids on the outside were vast, awe-inspiring and austere. On the inside, they could contain other aspects of Egyptian genius, like star-strewn ceilings and the delicate and intricate “gold pectorals with amethysts, turquoise, lapis lazuli, carnelian and vitreous pastes” buried with Princess Mereret in the pyramid of Sesostris III (Middle Kingdom, 1878-1839 BC). Guide to the Pyramids of Egypt is a feast for both the eye and the intellect, a well-designed and well-translated book with one big flaw: there’s no index. So it’s rather like the noseless Sphinx: magnificent but with something important missing.

The pyramids are missing something too: the limestone sheathing that would once have made them blaze in the sun. What must Egypt have been like in her heyday? Or rather: her hey-centuries, because civilization lasted there a very long time. To glimpse that grandeur, open this book.

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The Wooden Horse by Eric WilliamsThe Wooden Horse, Eric Williams (Pen & Sword 2013)

This book is about much more than ingenuity, effort and escape: it’s about existence. First published in 1949, it tells the story of three British prisoners of war who found an especially ingenious way to overcome the anti-escape restrictions of Stalag Luft III in Sagan (now Żagań in Poland). The perimeter fence was a long way from the huts and the Germans were using seismographs to detect any sound of digging. Solution? Simple: start a tunnel beneath the open sky while men jump up and down around you to cover the sound of your digging.

But how on earth do you do that? The title of the book supplies the answer: build a wooden vaulting horse, knock it over a few times to show the guards that it’s innocently empty, then hide inside it the next time it’s carried out and start digging. The excavated soil is carried back in the horse when the vaulting session is over and the entrance to the tunnel is concealed with a trapdoor. This means that Eric Williams and his companions, Michael Codner and Oliver Philpot, were using a disguise even before they escaped. They go under other names – Peter Howard, John Clinton and Philip Rowe – in this book, which is written like a novel in the third person. That allows Williams to use interior monologues, to switch locations and perspectives, and to be more descriptive than he would have been in a straight history. The Wooden Horse is full of sights, sounds, smells and sensations:

Peter leaned on the window-sill. It was late spring. Beyond the wire he could see the pale fronds of a silver birch graceful against the dark background of the pine forest […] a cascade of delicate green, almost yellow in the morning sun. […] Under the wire the sand was moist with dew and dew sparkled on the barbed wire. The long green living huts looked washed and cool, uncluttered as yet by the thousand prisoners who would soon spread their restlessness throughout the camp. He refused to think of the biting flies that would swarm into the hut and plague them as the day warmed up. (Part one, “Inside”, ch. 1, pg. 22)

He crossed to the trapdoor and lowered himself into the space under the hut. The sand felt cool to his hands and the air was musty and full of the odour of pinewood. He crawled towards the edge of the hut and lay waiting until John joined him. “After the next beam,” he whispered. “Then we’ll make a dash for the sand pit.” […] Peter looked up at the sky. It was the first time he had been out-of-doors at night since he was captured. There were no clouds and the heavens were trembling with a myriad stars. (Ibid., ch. 2, pg. 45)

The sheet of thin card the Escape committee had provided was almost as thick as that on which the pass was printed. He cut two pieces of the right size; cutting them carefully with the razor blade and metal ruler on the glass top of the dressing table, forgetting even the ultimate aim of his work. He would be absorbed for the rest of the afternoon and would finish the job with aching eyes and stiff shoulders; but rested and in some way renewed by the intensity of his concentration. (Part two, “Outside”, ch. 1, pp. 208-9)

There’s an important phrase in that final paragraph: “the ultimate aim”. What is it? Like the object it’s named after, The Wooden Horse is carrying more than it seems and in the end readers will find themselves in the same position as the German guards at Stalag Sagan. Just as there was much more to the vaulting than the guards realized, so there’s much more to the story of three prisoners and their escape than you first realize. The final page of The Wooden Horse will cast everything that’s gone before in a new light. It’s a memorable book about deception and disguise that is itself deceptive and wearing a disguise. A story set in a particular narrow time and situation is really about something much wider. You’ll learn a lot about life in a German POW camp in the Second World War, but you’ll also learn things about yourself. This is an existential book, sometimes in a serious way, sometimes not. Sometimes there’s humour in something serious, like the “ghosts” in the camp:

At some time in the early days the prisoners had managed to confuse the German nominal role, so that there were fewer of them on the books than were in the camp. These supernumeraries went into hiding at appell, and were kept in reserve to take the place of any prisoner who had escaped or who wanted for some reason to disappear. The life of a ghost was not a happy one. Not being on the roll he could draw no rations and even his letters from home had to be addressed to another prisoner. (“Inside”, pg. 85)

There are also glimpses of horror. When they escape to a Baltic port and try to find a ship for neutral Sweden, they see starving Russian prisoners being used as slave labour. “Escaping was still a sport to us,” says Eric Williams in an introduction he wrote in 1978. To the Russians it was an impossibility: they were too weak to attempt it, too far from home to consider it. And home was full of horror too. Wars are engines of cruelty and destruction, but even at its height the Second World War didn’t destroy everything or crush everyone. The Wooden Horse was made truly famous by the film, but the book has much more than the film. Sand, sun and trembling stars: after Williams broke out of Sagan, he broke into history and wrote a classic not just about escape, but about the essence of life.

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Sub-Machine Gun by Maxim Popenker and Anthony G. WilliamsSub-Machine Gun: The development of sub-machine guns and their ammunition from World War I to the present day, Maxim Popenker and Anthony G. Williams, (Crowood Press 2011)

There’s a special fascination to beautiful things that inflict pain, suffering and death. Like military aircraft, guns can be very beautiful. There’s an additional power in their ingenuity. For many decades, very intelligent gun-designers have racked their brains for better ways to wreck brains, bones and bodies:

Wounding effectiveness is generally measured by the size of the wound channels created in ballistic gel, which is designed to replicate the characteristics of flesh. This can, of course, only give an indication of the real results, since bodies are not composed of homogeneous material but contain organs of varying toughness, voids and bones; nevertheless the gel does allow comparative testing under controlled conditions. Two different channels are created when a bullet passes through the gel: the most important is the permanent channel, which is what the name implies – the track of destroyed material. Other things being equal, this determines the rate of blood loss, which is the main incapacitating mechanism. The other is the temporary channel, which is the much wider volume disturbed by the shockwave from the bullet’s passage. This is less serious, although it can still have some effect. (“Ammunition Design”, pg. 53)

As you’ll see here, bullets can be beautiful too. This book is about a weapon designed to combine maximum firepower with maximum portability: the sub-machine gun (SMG), which is a “fully automatic shoulder gun firing pistol ammunition” (Introduction, pg. 8). An SMG is a way for one man to massacre many men at high speed. That’s what makes the SMG frightening and fascinating. But the one man has to have an advanced industrial civilization behind him. This book is explicitly about SMGs, but implicitly about HBD, or human bio-diversity. Or rather: the lack of it. The nations listed in part 2, which describes sub-machine guns manufactured everywhere from Argentina to Vietnam, are all populated by highly intelligent light-skinned races.

But there’s diversity among the light-skinned: the huge nation of China gets seven pages, the tiny nation of Switzerland gets eleven. Europeans are innovators, Asians are adopters and adapters. But the United Kingdom does poorly by comparison with Switzerland too. Snobbery and stupidity help explain that: “Until the start of World War II the British military had practically ignored SMGs, referring to such weapons as ‘gangster guns’” (pg. 260). Once the war started, the military tried to repair its error, first with the Lanchester, “a very close copy of the German Schmeisser MP.28”, then with the Sten, “one of the crudest and most cheaply made, but the simplest and most effective guns of World War II” (ibid.).

The next nation in the list is the origin of “gangster guns”: the USA, the biggest and most important arms-manufacturer of them all. From the elegant Tommy-gun, made world-famous by Hollywood, to the stubby Kriss Super V, American sub-machine guns have been giving the world a lot of bang for not-so-much buck since the First World War, when the “noted ordnance expert” John T. Thompson “set up the Auto-Ordnance Corporation … in order to fund the development of automatic guns” (pg. 272). The “Annihilator” was released in 1919, but the Tommy-gun became famous under more sardonic names like the “Chicago typewriter” and “Chicago piano”. That’s what the British army didn’t like. The war changed their minds and by 1940 Britain couldn’t get enough of the Tommy-gun, in part because “many of them were lost en route, due to German submarine attacks” (ibid.).

Submarines are another fascinating weapon, but they’re a team effort from start to finish. SMGs involve teams of designers and manufacturers, but the collective effort is focused through an individual, the man who carries the SMG and fires it. He can be a soldier or a bodyguard, a gangster or a policeman, an assassin or a gun-enthusiast. The portability and power of the SMG are attractive in all those roles. This book would appeal to everyone who plays one of them. It discusses all aspects of the annihilator, from armour-piercing ammunition and the cost of manufacture to silencers and stocks.

It illustrates everything too. Some of the early SMGs are like works of art, some of the modern ones are like alien artifacts, so you can see evolution and innovation over nearly a full century, as manufacturers around the world compete to sell slaughter. The manufacturers range from the infamous to the obscure: even I had heard of Kalashnikov, Heckler & Koch and Uzi, but what about STAR, Cugir and Husqvarna? Unfortunately, not all of the photographs and weapon-summaries are dated, but that’s the only flaw I could see. Sub-Machine Gun is a book by experts aimed at enthusiasts. And what explains the appeal of the SMG? It’s summed up in the section devoted to “Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic”, another small region of Europe that’s big in armaments. In the 1960s, it produced the Scorpion SMG. Sub-machine guns are small, but they have a deadly sting.

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botty by miriam stimbersBotty: An Unnatural History of the Backside, Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (TransVisceral Books 2014)

With a Miriam Stimbers book you can expect only one thing: the unexpected. From knock-knock jokes to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, from allegorical albinism in the music of Hawkwind to fundamentalist phantasmality in the music of the Wombles: Stimbers has an unparalleled ability to dissect the deviant demons of mutant modernity by unleashing a scholarly spotlight of high-octane hermeneutics on the feral formulae of societal psychosis that lurk unsuspected amid the mephitic maelstrom of contemporary culture. And then some…

But might Botty be her best book yet? Quite possibly. The backside is (or can be) a big subject, but Stimbers doesn’t flinch, seamlessly synthesizing the most disparate elements of pygocentric and proctotropic performativity, from bottom-worshipping sculptors in the ancient world to twerking pop-stars in the 21st century. But for me the stand-out – or should that be stand-up? – section has to be the chapter in which Stimbers rolls up her psychoanalytic sleeves and gets to grips with the toxic taboo of the haemorrhoid. Is it merely a coincidence, she asks, that the journalist Emma Freud, great-granddaughter of the immortal Sigmund, should have supplied a rhyming slang for the condition? (i.e., emmas ← Emma Freuds ← haemorrhoids)

Stimbers suggests not, because haemorrhoids occupy a central, albeit (to the general public) little-known, position in the history and culture of psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) first suffered from them at the age of 46, writing to his long-term correspondent and confidant Jakob Froschnichts:

My God, Jakob, I could swear that they are the size of grapefruit! [Pampelmusen] I cannot sit for a moment and have to work standing at my desk, which I have raised by propping the legs on the largest volumes in my library. Furthermore, I must sleep on my stomach, strapped to the bed for fear that I should turn over in the night and be woken by a sudden shaft of proctalgia [Arschlochschmerz]. It is a most wearisome business, but nevertheless an educative one, offering the sufferer insights into the human condition that might pass them by who have never endured this atrocious affliction. (Botty, ch. 8, “Of Heresy and Haemorrhoids”, pg. 215, quoting The Collected Letters of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XVIII, ed. Dr Nathan T. Goldberg, Harvard University Press 1983)

But despite his own direct experience, Freud was never able to place haemorrhoids definitively within the schemata of psychoanalytic aetiology. Were they, as he first suspected, a tell-tale symptom of anal retentivity? Or, in fact, of its exact opposite? Or did it vary from patient to patient, from backside to backside? He never made up his mind.

Still afflicted: Freud in 1938

Still afflicted: Freud in 1938

Nor could he have guessed how haemorrhoids would spark a furious controversy in psychoanalytic circles following his death. In the 1950s, some senior disciples began to insist that it was an “insult to the Master” to acquire them substantially before the age of 46, while others insisted, on the contrary, that it was an insult to acquire them an appreciable time after.

Most were agreed that acquisition actually in the year of one’s 46th birthday was best, but what of those who never acquired them at all? Stimbers describes rumours that some unafflicted psychoanalysts were faking the symptoms in order to ingratiate themselves with whichever tendency happened to hold sway in their own city or nation. There is even talk of prosthetic haemorrhoids being secretly manufactured and deployed in such psychoanalytic centres as New York and London. Stimbers keeps a cool head amid the controversy, declines to reveal her own partisan preferences, and guides the reader through the twists and turns of the great Freudian haemorrhoid debate right to the present day.

But if that’s the best bit of Botty, you’ll by no means be disappointed by the rest. As ever, there’s some serious Stimbulation within these pages and, unlike Freud and his fellow sufferers, you’ll be left in the best possible position: glued to your seat and wanting much more. By casting a botlight into the most uncompromising crevices of proctocentric possibility, Stimbers has thrown down an incendiary gauntlet not merely to other cultural commentators but also to her own future self. Will she ever top Botty? We’ll just have to wait and see…

Elsewhere other-posted:

Pestilent, Pustulent and Pox-Pockedmore meticulous Miriamic monitoring of the mephitic maelstrom

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Some interesting comments on #BooksThatShouldNotBe. Everyone agrees that Naked Lunch is an unbeatable choice to head the list and that Thighway to Mel is indeed Stewart Home’s masterpiece. But there’s some suggestion that Miriam Stimbers’ Re-Light My Führer and David Britton’s Basted in the Broth of Billions might not be as consistently transgressive as their Can the Cannibal? Aspects of Angst, Abjection and Anthropophagy in the Music of Suzi Quatro, 1972-1986 (2004) and F*** Off and Diet (2010), respectively.

This POV is not unarguable, but in the end it was a personal call and I optionized for Re-Light and Basted. On another day, who knows…?

Killers for Culture was something else singled out for comment. “Outstanding book and even better when read whilst listening to the sample MP3s!” noted one Papyrocentric Performativizer. “I especially liked the way the band mixed psychobilly guitar with death-metal vocals,” the Performativizer continued. “On ‘Kaught with a Korpse’ Dave Kerekes sounds as though he’s literally vomiting into the microphone. Killer stuff!”

I’m sure Dave will be very happy with the praise, but I should note: that’s not vomiting — it’s his Bootle accent…

(I blame the ozone…)))

Thiz Iz Siz-Biz…

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