SLECHT NIEUWS VOOR DOCTOR PAF DE PIERENNAAIER, PANDEMONIUM IN DE GRAUWZONE – J.M.H. Berckmans (1998)

I’m slowly working my way through the oeuvre of the Flemish cult writer J.M.H. Berckmans, who died of chronic health problems due to heavy drinking in 2008 – a slow suicide. He was manic-depressive and suffered from paranoid anxiety. His books are hard to find and long OOP, but over the years I’ve managed to collect most of his work. This particular book seemed like the logical one to read right now, given the corona pandemic that’s ravaging the world. The title is a bit idiomatic, but could be translated as ‘Bad news for Dr. Poof the Worm-seamer, Pandemonium in the Grayzone’.

The rest of this post will be in Dutch, but stay tuned for a review of Dune Messiah. I hope to further explore the themes of my long analysis of Dune itself, and see how Herbert’s stance on determinism & love for tragedy evolves throughout the series. I’m not sure if that’ll be a viable strategy, I have just started my reread.


Slecht nieuws voor Doctor Paf de Pierennaaier, pandemonium in de GrauwzoneIk heb al wat geschreven over Jean-Marie Berckmans, en ik ga proberen mezelf hier niet te herhalen. Lees dus eventueel eerst mijn eerbetoon aan de man waar ik ooit het podium mee deelde op een literaire avond in een jeugdhuis. Ik heb ook Taxi Naar De Boerhaavestraat uit 1995 gerecenseerd – met ontluisterende foto’s van diezelfde literaire avond, want het geromantiseer van Berckmans’ zogenaamde rock ‘n roll dat je hier en daar al eens tegenkomt is totaal misplaatst. Tot slot, hier nog drie alinea’s over de J.M.H. biografie van Chris Ceustermans die 10 jaar na zijn dood verscheen.

Slecht nieuws voor Doctor Paf de Pierennaaier, Pandemonium in de Grauwzone is kort, zoals de meeste van Berckmans’ boeken – slechts 132 pagina’s. Het is wat radicaler dan Taxi Naar De Boerhaavestraat door zijn rechtlijnige vastberadenheid, ook al zijn de meeste thema’s grotendeels hetzelfde: angst, armoede, drinken als schild en medicijn, de stront van het leven.

De openingsscène is fantastisch – het is winter, en de Creutzfeldt-Jakob epidemie houdt huis in de Grauwzone – de nieuwe naam voor Barakstad: Berckmans’ Antwerpen rondom Café De Raaf in de Lange Lozanastraat. Het uitbreken van de dollekoeienziekte moet voor Jean-Marie een soort bevestiging zijn geweest: plots wordt de gehele wereld gedwongen om mee paranoia te zijn.

Maar al snel krijgt het boek iets monotoon. Een van de kwaliteiten van Taxi… was net de afwisseling: elk deel had een eigen karakter. Niet zo in Slecht nieuws: dat is geen afwisseling van verhalen en korte stukken en brieven zoals in zoveel van Berckmans’ andere boeken, maar een aaneenschakeling van korte teksten in dezelfde setting, met een duidelijke chronologie. Dit is een verhaal met een begin en een einde.
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BECOMING HUMAN: A THEORY OF ONTOGENY – Michael Tomasello (2019)

Becoming Human TomaselloI’m always eager for the year-end list of David Auerbach at Waggish. The man is a voracious reader in all kinds of domains. 2019’s list was dauntingly long, but I found a few titles right up my ally, one being Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny by Michael Tomasello, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke. Tomasello is one of the few scientists bridging developmental research on both primates and children, and a leading figure in a branch of evolutionary psychology that was new to me: human ontogeny.

The book focuses on the question what makes humans unique. It does this by focusing on how children become adult humans, and as such part of human culture – how the development of human abilities in children differ from the development of these abilities in great apes.

Tomasello’s scope is large. He ties the development of human cognition and human sociality together, resulting in synthesizing insights about social norms & moral identity. This in not only a comparative psychology book, but an important work on ethics too. Truly a tour de force, and the first theory I’ve come across that convincingly brings cognition, evolution and ethics together – not in a normative way, but by describing the pathways of how these things arise, starting with newborn babies.

Tomasello builds on the seminal insight of Lev Vygotsky, who in the beginning of the 20th century was one of the first to articulate the fact that children need a social context to develop fully. A child that would be put onto a desert island without any social interaction would not become ‘human’ as we generally define it.

To further sketch the content, let me first quote the blurb from the publisher – Harvard.

Tomasello assembles nearly three decades of experimental work with chimpanzees, bonobos, and human children to propose a new framework for psychological growth between birth and seven years of age. He identifies eight pathways that starkly differentiate humans from their closest primate relatives: social cognition, communication, cultural learning, cooperative thinking, collaboration, prosociality, social norms, and moral identity. In each of these, great apes possess rudimentary abilities. But then, Tomasello argues, the maturation of humans’ evolved capacities for shared intentionality transform these abilities—through the new forms of sociocultural interaction they enable—into uniquely human cognition and sociality. The first step occurs around nine months, with the emergence of joint intentionality, exercised mostly with caregiving adults. The second step occurs around three years, with the emergence of collective intentionality involving both authoritative adults, who convey cultural knowledge, and coequal peers, who elicit collaboration and communication. Finally, by age six or seven, children become responsible for self-regulating their beliefs and actions so that they comport with cultural norms.

At first, I was a bit suspicious of Tomasello’s claims: I have read quite a lot of Frans de Waal and the likes, and my intellectual stance the last decade or so had been to not overestimate human uniqueness – not in language skills, not in cognition, etc. I considered differences between humans and other animals basically a matter of degree.

To a certain extent this obviously still holds, but one of the merits of Tomasello is that he uses large sets of experimental data that clearly show there are two things that are unique in humans: “shared intentionality” and “collective intentionality”. Basically, the fact that we humans do things together, know that we do things together and have elaborate insights in other humans’ mental states that influence our own mental states. So it’s not only cooperation itself that is important, but the fact that it is a form of recursive cooperation.

Language obviously is important for all of this, and so this is not only an ethics book, but one that should interest linguists too. The same goes for the cultural transmission of knowledge: instructed learning basically doesn’t exist in the rest of the animal kingdom, so yes, pedagogy too. Continue reading

THE LORD OF THE RINGS – J.R.R. Tolkien (1955)

The Lord Of The RingsBefore I get to the main course of this massive 7261 words review after the jump, some introductory remarks on my relationship to Tolkien first.

There will be one big problem with this review: I truly cannot assess this book on its own merits. I was 22 when the first Peter Jackson adaptation came out, and over the years I’ve seen all three movies multiple times, as well as the extended versions. Not that I consider myself a The Lord Of The Rings geek – not at all – but the movies were such a dominant cultural force back in the days, with CGI and other special effects on a scale unseen before. In an age before streaming, popping in a LOTR DVD simply was easy escapism, even if you’d seen it twice already.

I had read The Hobbit in translation when I was 14 or so, but wasn’t that impressed, and subsequently got bogged down in a Dutch translation of The Fellowship of the Ring a few months later. When the movies came out a few years later, I didn’t feel like I needed to read the books – as my friends who had read them assured me there wasn’t a whole lot more to the story, so I wasn’t curious – I mean, why read 1000 pages just to get a few scenes with Tom Bombadil or Radagast The Brown? And yes, the Scouring of the Shire is a significant coda, but it wasn’t crucial to satisfy my escapist urges.

Today, I have read the books. I even read the 894-page A Reader’s Companion by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull – well, I skimmed certain parts of that, to be honest. As I said, I’m not a LOTR geek, but the 2014 version of 2005’s Companion was included in the edition I ended up buying. I wanted to have a hardcover edition (with the appendixes) in 3 separate bands – as I’d found that the single tome I bought first was simply not practical to read, so I send that back, and an edition with the Companion turned out to be the cheapest. As I knew I wanted to write this review, I thought it would be interesting to read up a bit on LOTR now that I had that Companion anyway. For those of you interested, I’ve included a short review of Hammond & Scull’s volume at the very end.

All the prefaces and introductions and histories of the work’s origin and quotes from letters and notes and notes and notes did enhance my reading experience. It showed that Tolkien had too much time on his hands, and invested so much in backstories of details that the entire Middle-earth mythos is a work of art so far out there it borders on the insane – the fact that A Reader’s Companion makes crystal clear again and again Tolkien was foremost preoccupied with the linguistic aspects of his creation only amplifies that.

But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself: I was talking about the one big problem of this review. I will do two things in the remainder of this text:

First, I’ll talk about my reading experience in relation to having seen the movies first, and try to compare the two. That might be of interest to a whole lot of new LOTR readers, as I take it most newbies will have seen the movies first, but it might also be of interest to people who read the books first, as, paradoxically, having seen the movies first also allows me to reflect on the bare bones of the story as story, regardless of medium.

After that, I’ll write a fair bit on what I wrote in my 5500 words analysis of that other monument of speculative fiction, Frank Herbert’s Dune:

I have long held the suspicion that what underlies big parts of literature is the way we relate to us being determined. At a basic level, everybody understands that reality is deterministic: if an egg falls, it breaks. If you drink alcohol, your behavior changes. If our heads are chopped off, we die. Physical and chemical laws – via evolution – give rise to biology, behavior and society. That knowledge is a problem for our consciousness, for we feel in control. As freedom is inherent in so many human claims, our basic understanding of reality short circuits with our basic perception of ourselves. It is humanity’s most basic problem (…).

It is my firm conviction such is also The Lord Of The Rings most basic problem, and it turns out again that authors are not always the best theoreticians about their own work: Tolkien’s writing on his own writing is a mess.

For those who might be confused by what I already wrote so far: I’m generally positive on this Monument of Fantasy. If pressed, I would give it 4 out of 5 stars as a literary accomplishment – which is excellent: 5-star reads are rare. As a work of outsider art, it’s way off the charts: 5+++ it is!

This text is the longest review I have yet written and especially the part on choice and “acts of will” is heavy with quotes from LOTR itself, but you can skip those if you want. Throughout this review, I will also quote extensively from letters Tolkien wrote, and I’d say those are crucial either way.

If you’re a seasoned Tolkien fan, I’m very curious about your view on what this LOTR newbee wrote about the matter, so don’t hesitate to disagree in the comments.

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NICO DOCKX TALKS WITH DENNIS TYFUS (2018)

Nico Dockx Talks With Dennis Tyfus

An outright fantastic book on artist Dennis Tyfus, a monograph really, and a bulky one: 880 pages. It’s lavishly illustrated: every other page is a full colour illustration, drawing, painting, photograph or collage, and the pages with text generally also feature smaller illustrations. This massive tome is the best publication yet to get a feel for the scope and nature of Tyfus’s work.

It is structured around a year-long daily email interview, printed in English. Dockx’s questions at times seem designed to showcase his own reading & his own network – there’s a lot of name dropping. As a result, the questions sometimes veer a bit too much into the hot air territory art critics infatuated with their own theoretical framework like. In other instances the questions are simply a bit daft, like this one: ‘Have you ever worked with notions of camouflage in your work (as sometimes it can be interesting to stay under the radar)?’. But I guess I’m too harsh on Dockx: coming up with 366 questions is no mean feat, and it is to his credit he provides a fertile platform for Tyfus’s thoughts.

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2019 FAVORITES

I might have to change the subtitle of this blog, as only 8 of the 26 books I read in 2019 were science fiction, and 3 were fantasy. I’m not sure if that trend will continue. We’ll see what crosses my path, or what grabs my attention from the stack pictured a few scrolls down. I’ll continue with a few art books in the mix though: titles on James Turrell, Bernd & Hilla Becher and Cy Twombly are in the queue.

For now, a genuine thank you to everyone who has read, liked, linked or commented. All the best to you and yours for 2020!

The new year should see a review of The Lord Of The Rings – I’ve finally started that, it’s great so far – and the massive Kolyma Stories by Varlam Shalamov, a book I started last January, digesting it in small doses. I had hoped to finish it before the second volume of translations comes out this month, but I won’t manage that. I also plan to write on Intermediary Spaces, the Éliane Radigue interview book by Julia Eckardt. I will also continue my rereads of the Dune series. (Update 26/02: my LOTR review turned out to be a massive 7000+ words, so enter at your own risk…)


A few blog stats for those of you who might be interested in such a thing… There were 14,913 views in 2019, and 8,719 visitors – a bit more than in 2018. The review I wrote the past year that was most successful was Destination: Void with 255 views. The most read reviews so far are those for New York 2140 (979 views since published), The Dosadi Experiment (957 views) and The Wandering Earth (768 views). Also still going strong (+500 views) are reviews for Green Earth, Death’s End, Last And First Men, What Kind Of Creatures Are We?, The Algebraist, Uprooted and Whipping Star. Most of these keep on getting views every couple of days. Herbert, Cixin Liu and KSR always seem to be do well, but I have no quick explanation for the success of my texts on Stapledon, Chomsky or Novik.


As for the actual list: below are the books I’ve given a 5-star rating on Goodreads in 2019, only 4 in total. Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, Darwinian Reductionism: Or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology and Vincent Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings each got 4 stars, and are all highly recommended too.

I might not have had that many perfect reads last year, but I enjoyed all the more music. If you scroll down, you’ll see that I’ve written a whole lot more about albums as I did the previous years – 2019 has been great on that front.

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MARY TOFT; OR, THE RABBIT QUEEN – Dexter Palmer (2019)

Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen

My love for Version Control, Dexter Palmer’s previous novel, is no secret. It was one of the best book I’ve read in 2016. It’s the only time travel novel I know that doesn’t short circuit, maybe because it’s not primarily a time travel novel to begin with – but something more akin to a near future Jonathan Franzen book. So when I saw this new one advertised, I pre-ordered it instantly, and started it the moment it was delivered to my door: that’s how high my expectations were.

Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen, Palmer’s third book, is not speculative fiction. It’s a historical novel set in 1726, about something that really happened and yet reeks of magic: Mary Toft, a farmer’s wife, confounded England’s medical community by giving birth to seventeen dead rabbits. The rabbits aren’t whole though – it’s usually just a head, some legs and a bit of intestines. To the 21st century reader, it’s immediately clear this must have been a hoax, so Palmer doesn’t rely on magical wonder for tension.

What we get instead is a book dealing with the psychology of collective delusions & expectations that guide perception – an epistemological tale indeed. A book about Truth. Add to that a focus on the human penchant for the dark, and you get a book that’s right up my ally.

Yet I was not fully convinced. Or at least – my expectations were not met, and the book proves its own point. Had I read this book without reading Version Control first, my reaction to it would have been different, but I’m still not exactly sure how…

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LANGUAGE UNLIMITED (2019) – PICASSO (2018) – HANFF (1970)

Short write-ups of three very different books: a new linguistics book intended for a general audience, a splendid book on Picasso’s drawings & an epistolary classic of some sorts…

There’s even one I can recommend 100%!

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