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Archive for February, 2015

Latest Reviews (26/ii/2015)

Volc-LoreVolcanoes: A Beginner’s Guide, Rosaly Lopes (Oneworld 2010)

Stokes’ StrokesPhilosophy: 100 Essential Thinkers: The Ideas That Have Shaped Our World, Philip Stokes (Arcturus Publishing 2012)

Art of DarknessDoubled Slaughter: Barbarism, Brutalism and Bestial Bloodlust in the Music of Simon and Garfunkel, Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (Serpent’s Tail 2007)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Volcanoes A Beginners Guide by Rosaly LopesVolcanoes: A Beginner’s Guide, Rosaly Lopes (Oneworld 2010)

My first introduction to volcanoes was fictional: Willard Price’s Volcano Adventure (1956), which stands out in his Adventure series because it centres on something inanimate, not on animals like lions or gorillas or elephants. This book by the NASA scientist Rosaly Lopes is factual but equally enjoyable. And some of it would fit well into Volcano Adventure anyway:

[V]olcanoes come with different sizes, shapes and temperaments. It is fascinating to study what causes these differences and understand that, while generalizations are possible, each volcano has its distinct quirks, just like people. We could also compare volcanoes to cats: with few exceptions, they spend most of their lives asleep. (ch. 1, “What are volcanoes?”, pg. 1)

When a volcano wakes, look out. They’ve slain cities, devastated eco-systems and shaped landscapes. They’re also shaped cultures. Like a thunderstorm or earthquake, an erupting volcano raises a big question in the minds of human observers: What caused something so powerful and impressive? Our explanations began with myth and moved to science. And they moved a long time ago: the ancient philosopher Anaxagoras “proposed that volcanic eruptions were caused by great winds within the Earth, blowing through narrow passages” (pg. 5) and becoming hot by friction. Two-and-a-half millennia later, scientists are plotting “silica (SiO2) content” against “alkali content” as they classify “different volcanic rocks” (ch. 2, “How volcanoes erupt”, pg. 15).

But Anaxogaras’ principles are still at work: seek the explanation in mindless mechanism, not in supernatural mind. Classification is another essential part of science. In vulcanology, the scientific study of volcanoes, magmas are classified and so are eruptions, from subdued to spectacular: Icelandic and Hawaiian are on the subdued side, Peléean, Plinian and Ultraplinian on the spectacular, with Strombolian and Vulcanian in between. Some eruptions are easy to understand and investigate. Some are difficult. Volcanoes can be as simple or complicated as their names. Compare Laki, on Iceland, with Eyjafjallajökull, also on Iceland.

Laki is an example of an eco-slayer:

Although the eruption did not kill anyone directly, its consequences were disastrous for farmland, animals and humans alike: clouds of hydrofluoric acid and sulphur dioxide compounds caused the deaths of over half of Iceland’s livestock and, ultimately, the deaths – mostly from starvation – of about 9,000 people, a third of the population. The climatic effects of the eruption were felt elsewhere in Europe; the winter of 1783-4 as noted as being particularly cold. (ch. 3, “Hawaiian and Icelandic eruptions: fire fountains and lava lakes”, pg. 31)

Lopes goes on to look at city-slayers like Mount Pelée and Vesuvius, but they can be less harmful to the environment. A spectacular eruption can be over quickly and release relatively little gas and ash into the atmosphere. And death-dealing is only half the story: volcanoes also give life, because they enrich the soil. They enrich experience too, not just with eruptions but with other phenomena associated with vulcanism: geysers, thermal springs, mudpools and so on.

And that’s just the planet Earth. Lopes also discusses the rest of the solar system, from Mercury, Venus and Mars to the moons of gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. The rocky planets have volcanoes more or less like those on earth, but the moons of the gas giants offer an apparent paradox: cryovolcanoes, or “cold volcanoes”, which erupt ice and water, not superheated lava. On Neptune’s moon Triton, whose surface is an “extremely cold” -235ºC, cryovulcanism may even involve frozen nitrogen. The hypothesis is that under certain conditions, it’s heated by sunlight, turns into a gas and “explodes” in the “near-vacuum of Triton’s environment” (ch. 11, “The exotic volcanoes of the outer solar system”, pg. 138).

Hot or cold, big or small, on the earth or off it, volcanoes are fascinating things and this is an excellent introduction to what they do and why they do it.

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Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip StokesPhilosophy: 100 Essential Thinkers: The Ideas That Have Shaped Our World, Philip Stokes (Arcturus Publishing 2012)

Caricatures are compelling because they simplify and exaggerate. A good artist can create one in a few strokes. In fact, a good artist has to caricature if he can use only a few strokes. The image won’t be recognizable otherwise.

This also applies to philosophical ideas. If you have to describe them in relatively few words, you’ll inevitably caricature, making them distinct but losing detail and complexity. So this book is a series of caricatures. With only 382 pages of standard print, what else could it be? In each case, Philip Stokes uses a few strokes to portray “100 Essential Thinkers” from Thales of Miletus, born c. 620 B.C., to William Quine (1908-2000), with all the big names in between: Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Pascal, Hume, Kant, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Russell, Wittgenstein and so on. The philosophical portraits are recognizable but not detailed. But that’s why they’re fun, like a caricature.

It’s also fun to move so quickly through time. There are nearly three millennia of Western philosophy here, but the schools and the civilizations stream by, from the Pre-Socratics and Atomists to the Scholastics and Rationalists; from pagan Greece and Rome to Christianity and communism. Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, which inevitably comes to mind when you look at an over-view like this, moves much more slowly, but it’s a longer and more detailed book.

It’s also funnier and less inclusive. This book discusses men who are more usually seen as scientists or mathematicians, like Galileo and Gödel. But in a sense any historic figure could be included in an over-view of philosophy, because everyone has one. You can’t escape it. Rejecting philosophy is a philosophy too. Science and mathematics have philosophical foundations, but in some ways they’re much easier subjects. They’re much more straightforward, like scratching your right elbow with your left hand.

Philosophy can seem like trying to scratch your right elbow with your right hand. The fundamentals of existence are difficult to describe, let alone understand, and investigating language using language can tie the mind in knots. That’s why there’s a lot of room for charlatans and nonsense in philosophy. It’s easier to pretend profundity than to be profound. It’s also easy to mistake profundity for pseudery.

And, unlike great scientists or mathematicians, great philosophers should be read in the original. Reading Nietzsche in English is like looking at a sun-blasted jungle through tinted glass or listening to Wagner wearing earplugs. Or so I imagine: I can’t read him in German. But some philosophers suffer less by translation than others, because some philosophical ideas are universal. Logic, for example. But how important is logic? Is it really universal? And is mathematics just logic or is it something more?

You can ask, but you may get more answers than you can handle. Philosophy is a fascinating, infuriating subject that gets everywhere and questions everything. You can’t escape it and this book is a good place to learn why.

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YaC Attack

The Great Grisby by Mikita BrottmanThe Great Grisby: Two Thousand Years of Exceptional Dogs, Mikita Brottman (William Collins 2014)

Unlike her fellow Oxonian Miriam Stimbers, Mikita Brottman has never seemed a plausible figure to me. Is she for real? Or is she in fact an under-cover performance artist parodying a neurotic Guardian-reading psychoanalyst with a PhD in the humanities? Will she unmask herself one day in dramatic circumstances at a conference engaging issues around post-Foucauldian hermeneutics? I’ve always had my suspicions.

Those suspicions were only deepened by The Great Grisby. This book is so Guardianista I half expected it to come with a free beard-trimmer and packet of fair-trade organic tampons. There’s no foreword by Polly Toynbee or afterword by Jonathan Freedland, but believe me: there should have been. The hum of the hive-mind was particularly loud in passages like this:

When you think about it, the idea of gangsters emerging from the ghetto to steal “our” innocent pets is really absurd; what’s more, it bespeaks all kinds of race and class anxieties. These sensitive issues also saturate the discourse around pit bull “rescue” campaigns, in which dogs are taken from young black men in the city’s run-down neighborhoods, inoculated, bathed, “altered”, given friendly names, adopted by middle-class families, and taken to live in the suburbs. We do to the dogs what we want to do to the barbarians who breed them: make them submit. (ch. 2, “Bull’s-eye”, pg. 20)

You can picture Guardianistas and NYT-wits nodding their heads wisely at that passage, then tutting sadly for the thousandth time over white racism. When will it end? When will the rainbow society begin and the Black Community be released from Its millennial bondage? But, as a keyly (and corely) committed anti-racist, I call bullshit. Ms B is pretending concern for Yoot-a-Color (YaC) while actually erecting toxic barriers to their participation in her own sunny world of white privilege.

Why do I say this? Simple. Look at the passage again. Note the verb “bespeaks” and the phrase “saturate the discourse around”. Guardianistas don’t notice the irony of expressing concern about Da Ghetto while using pretentious academic jargon so white it glows in the dark. Ms B’s own language is expressing a clear attitude towards YaC: she, from her lofty perch of white privilege, understands what causes their misery and deplores the hegemonic racism that systematically oppresses them.

Meanwhile, her actions speak louder than her words: she continues to benefit from that white hegemony and the unearned privilege it bestows 24/7/52 on jargon-juicing Guardianistas such as herself. This book is in fact an unabashed celebration of both the hegemony and the privilege. It interrogates issues around a series of white dog-owners and their dogs, with a nigh-on-nauseating emphasis on Dead White European Males like Charles Dickens, Sigmund Freud and Schopenhauer.

Got that? Then brace yourself – here’s a particularly appalling bit from chapter 7:

Blitz – as he’s usually called – now travels extensively with Lemmy and the boys. As you’ll readily imagine, it can get LOUD even backstage at a Motörhead gig and after some failed experiments with adapted ear-plugs and ear-muffs, Lemmy commissioned a special “acoustically opaque” sleeping-box for Blitz, in which, having been fed some doggie-chocs soaked with a herbal calmative, he’ll comfortably snooze out the earsplitting riffs of “Ace of Spades” and “Bomber” until the gig is over and he’s re-united with his besotted – and beloved – owner. With typical gruff honesty, Lemmy has declared that he prefers his dog to 99.9% of human beings: “There’s no bullshit with the bugger and I’m sure he’d lay down his fucking life for me, just as I’d lay down mine for him.” (ch. 7, “Blitzkrieg”, pg. 60)

Jesus. Could you get any whiter than heavy metal, herbal calmatives and truffle-hounds called Blitzkrieg? The closest Ms B gets to a Person of Color is Frida Kahlo. Which isn’t close enough, in my opinion. Interspersed with discussion of these hideously white dog-owners are Ms B’s musings on her own dog (now deceased). It was a French bulldog called Grisby, whose name came – in achingly arch Guardianista fashion – from a French film. But it gets worse. Grisby was a white French bulldog – just look at the cover. And the white dog/god is on a pedestal, forsooth! Could Ms B’s Eurocentric white-supremacist agenda be any clearer?

No. But think what this book could have been about. Rather than portraying a pampered pooch and writing about her fellow white privilegees, Ms B could have adopted an autistic Somali orphan with a missing limb and alopecia, recorded the child’s inspirational upbringing, and launched a real challenge to white supremacy and white privilege. Just think what a book that would have made. Instead, she chose to reinforce the white hegemonic power-structure while making vacuous rhetorical gestures towards solidarity with the ghetto.

Bad Brotty!


Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Hill Kill KultMurderous Mersey: The Seriously Sinister Story of Stockport’s Slo-Mo Slayer, Dariusz Mecoghescu (Visceral Visions 2014)

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Latest Reviews (5/ii/2015)

Roy des FleursScented Flora of the World: An Encyclopedia, Roy Genders (Robert Hale 1977)

Art to HartLives in Writing, David Lodge (Vintage Books 2015)

Could Yew Kudzu?Wicked Plants: The A-Z of Plants that Kill, Maim, Intoxicate and Otherwise Offend, Amy Stewart (Timber Press 2010)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Scented Flora of the World by Roy GendersScented Flora of the World: An Encyclopedia, Roy Genders (Robert Hale 1977)

It’s hard to believe that even a horticulturalist as expert and dedicated as Roy Genders (1913-85) was personally acquainted with every flower, tree, and shrub in this large and detailed book. But the back cover claims that it was “a thirty-year labour of love”, so perhaps he was. Either way, he was a lucky man. There is a Chinese saying that runs: “If you want to be happy for a day, get drunk; happy for a year, get married; happy for a lifetime, get a garden.”

Plants and flowers are endlessly rewarding and in a way the absence of pictures here intensifies the romance and sensuality of its subject. Even the appendices, running from “A” to “T”, are good to read: “Night-Scented Flowering Plants” combines the mystery of night with the strangeness of scientific names (Heliotropicum convolvulacaeum), the evocation of scent (vanilla, honey, lily), and the enchantment of distance (Mexico, Brazil, South Africa).

Then there are “Scented Aquatic Plants” and “Scented Cacti and Succulents” — and that is only the appendices. In the first part of the book Genders discusses the history, chemistry, culture and psychology of scented flora, then plunges head-and-heart-long into the encyclopedia of the book’s title. There’s everything from Abelia chinensis, with its “rose-tinted flowers, like miniature fox-gloves”, to Zylopa glabra, whose seeds, “much sought after by wild pigeons… impart their particular odour to the birds’ flesh”. In between there are plants like Illicium religiosum, an omnifragrant Japanese tree used for incense and for strewing at funerals. Genders says that it’s known in China as “Mang-thsao, ‘the mad herb’, for it is said to cause frenzy in humans”.

Scent can do that, either by attracting or by repelling. And Genders doesn’t neglect the repellent side of his subject: he describes the pongy and pungent with the sweet and soporific. The final appendix draws up a “Phew’s-Who” of “Plants bearing Flowers or Leaves of Unpleasant Smell”. It’s like a remainder of the death and decay that await us all, but those are what nourish the plants that are beautiful and sweetly-scented, as well as those that are only one of those or neither.

So Scented Flora is big both in bulk and in its themes. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “encyclopedia” is spurious Greek for “all-round education”. Despite its focus on one aspect of one subject, that’s what Genders reveals and provides here. He knew a lot not just about horticulture and science, but about literature and culture too. We call Filipendula ulmaria “meadow-sweet” nowadays, but Ben Johnson knew it as “Meadow’s Queen”, perhaps after the French reine-des-prés, “queen of the meadows”. The herbalist Gerard said that its scent “makes the heart merry and delighteth the senses”. It does exactly that, but there are thousands more scented plants to explore and anticipate here.

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Lives in Writing by David LodgeLives in Writing, David Lodge (Vintage Books 2015)

I’ve never spent a wet Sunday in Hartlepool during a power-cut. Honest. You can probably say the same. However, there are various ways of approximating the experience in the comfort of your own home. You could watch some paint dry, for example. Or you could try reading this book.

In other words: Lives in Writing is deeply, will-to-live-drainingly dreary. David Lodge is a big literary name of the kind I’ve always instinctively avoided. But this is a collection of essays on writers, not one of his novels or books on literary theory, and I thought I could learn something from it. I was right: I did. I learnt that my instincts about Lodge were correct:

The name of Frank Kermode first impinged on my consciousness in 1954, when I was a second-year undergraduate reading English at University College London. In our Shakespeare course we had lectures from Winifred Nowottny, who in due course would be a colleague of Frank’s when he occupied the Lord Northcliffe chair at UCL. (“Frank Remembered – by a Kermodian”, pg. 153)

In 1961, aged twenty-six, I was in my second year as Assistant Lecturer in English Literature at Birmingham University when the Head of Department, Professor Terence Spencer, decided that we ought to have a specialist in American Literature, and accordingly advertised a post for one. (“Malcolm Bradbury: Friend and Writer”, pg. 165)

Can you detect any irony in the phrase “impinged on my consciousness”? Me neither. Does your heart quicken at a title like “Malcolm Bradbury: Friend and Writer”? I hope not. But prose like that is certainly inspirational. It inspired me to create a new verb: to plodge, meaning “to write ploddingly dreary prose in the manner of David Lodge”. I don’t think much of English Literature as an academic subject and Lodge helpfully confirms some of my keyest, corest prejudices. He’s a virtuso of ennui, able to be dreary both at length and in brief. Even the titles of his books shrink the horizon and lower the sky: Language of Fiction; Modes of Modern Writing; Working with Structuralism; After Bakhtin; Write On.

Would I rather read a Will Self novel than one of those? It’s frightening that the thought even occurs to me. But I’ll say this for Lodge: he’s not as bad as Terry Eagleton or Christopher Hitchens. Those two are gasbags bloated with self-importance and self-righteousness, spectacularly, sky-swallowingly bad writers. And Lodge himself might agree. After all, he tries to let a little gas out of Eagleton in his review of After Theory (2003):

There are sentences that should never have got past the first draft on his computer screen, let alone into print, like: ‘Much of the world as we know it, despite its solid, well-uphoulstered appearance, is of recent vintage.’ (In the next sentence this uphoulstered vintage is thrown up by tidal waves.) (“Terry Eagleton’s Goodbye to All That”, pg. 131)

But he praises Eagleton too and salutes the “brilliant generation of French intellectuals” – Barthes, Lacan, Althusser, Derrida, Foucault et al – who were “key figures” in the evolution of modern literary theory. So I’m pleased that he devotes a long essay to Graham Greene and mentions Evelyn Waugh only in passing. That’s the way I would have wanted it. There’s an essay about Kingsley Amis too, which is also good. Alas, William Burroughs doesn’t get plodged, but you can’t have everything. However, you can have a wet Sunday in Hartlepool, metaphorically speaking. Just try Lives in Writing.


Elsewhere other-posted:

Ink for Your PelfLiterary Theory: An Introduction, Terry Eagleton

Cigarettes and Al-QaedaHitch-22: A Memoir, Christopher Hitchens

Reds under the Thread – Younge, Eagleton et al

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Wicked Plants by Amy StewartWicked Plants: The A-Z of Plants that Kill, Maim, Intoxicate and Otherwise Offend, Amy Stewart (Timber Press 2010)

One of the most memorable villains in fiction is Ernst Blofeld, who battles James Bond in various books and films. Blofeld’s most memorable scheme is the garden of death he creates in You Only Live Twice (1964) to exploit the Japanese taste for suicide. As Ian Fleming puts it: Blofeld wants to “slay it with flowers”.

He would have found this book an excellent guide for his gardening. But he couldn’t have hoped to collect everything here, because it covers a world of wickedness and weathers, from monkshood in Scotland to mouse trap trees in Madagascar. The former is metabolically offensive: its alkaloid poison aconite “paralyzes the nerves, lowers the blood pressure, and eventually stops the heart” (pg. 2). The latter is mechanically offensive: its seeds are covered in hooked spines and “humans who have been caught in its grip report that attempting to remove the seedpods is like getting caught in a Chinese finger trap” (pg. 218).

The Chinese are famous for their ingenious tortures, but Mother Nature is more ingenious still. After all, she invented the Chinese too. Natural poisons can attack the muscles, the nerves, the skin and the brain. They can cripple you, blind you, kill you and drive you mad. That’s why they’re interesting. Amy Stewart covers every kind of offensive plant, from trees and grasses to cacti and algae, and quotes everyone from Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud to Hippocrates and Ovid. Whether it’s poisonous or simply a pest, you should find it discussed here: deadly nightshade and tobacco are killers, kudzu and water hyacinth are pests.

But there isn’t actually an entry under “Z”: the book starts with “Aconite” and ends with “Yew”. Which is appropriate, because humanity wouldn’t exist without plants. They enhance our lives in countless ways too. This book turns the leaf and discusses plants that destroy or distress us instead. It’s full of botany, chemistry, history and mean green machines.

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