This post is a collection of 3 shorter reviews of 3 very different books. For starters a new, lush Taschen collection of all known Rembrandt’s painted, etched & drawn self-portraits, in which I also offer a quick guide one what Rembrandt book you need to buy. Then there’s a recent, rare non-fiction book on jellyfish, and also here I’ll offer some pointers to other jellyfish books. To end, a short, but incomplete appraisal of Black Swan Green, David Mitchell’s semi-autobiographical account of his year as a 13-year-old, stammering teenager.
How many Rembrandt books does one need? Depends on what you want. Rembrandt’s Paintings Revisited – A Complete Survey A Reprint of A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings VI by the leading expert Ernst van de Wetering comes close to being the best monograph on Rembrandt’s paintings, but it is rivaled by the large format Rembrandt. The Complete Paintings by Volker Manuth. The text isn’t necessarily better than the van de Wetering book, but lots of the reproductions are – both in size as in quality. But, some paintings only get a small reproduction – strange editorial choice. So I think the books are complementary, also because the Van de Wetering book is very insightful on how the authorship of Rembrandt paintings is established.
That brings us to this book – an offshoot of the Complete Paintings and its companion Rembrandt. Complete Drawings and Etchings by Peter Schatborn – both Taschen projects published in 2019. What you get is a lush packaging, with a lenticular print cover, and gold pages throughout the book. Its text is minimal. There’s an introduction of 6 pages that also features small reproductions of Rembrandt’s self-portraits within other paintings. A few lines accompany some of the actual, full-fledged self-portraits in the rest of the book – but not all, and there are no lines to any of the etchings & drawings. All of those lines are lifted from the much longer Complete edition entries.
So the focus on the book is obviously the art itself, and what we get each time is a reproduction of the print or painting on the left page, if possible in its original size, with some basic information, and a full blown, full page reproduction on the right page – often zooming in a bit, but always including the full face. This contrasting approach works really well, especially for the etchings, as seeing their original small format only makes them more mind-blowing.
The quality of the reproductions is outstanding, at the same level as the 2 Complete Taschen mammoths. A few of the paintings get a bit of a bigger (partial) reproduction than in the Complete edition, and most of the etchings/drawings. If you already have the Complete books, I’d say this book doesn’t offer a lot of additional value for the paintings, but it does for the etchings/drawings.
The works are presented chronologically, and the book ends with two 4-pages overviews of all the paintings and all the etchings/drawings next to each other, also chronologically but to scale, making a comparison on that front possible. There’s also a short bullet point Rembrandt biography (2 pages) and a very small selected bibliography.
It’s kinda cool to have all the self-portraits collected in a volume of its own, and seeing them chronologically works on an emotional level too. I guess that emotion is the main appeal of this book – aside from the large reproductions of the etchings/drawings, coupled with their original format.
All and all, if you’re a serious Rembrandt enthusiast, this is a very nice addition to your Rembrandt library. If you just want a Rembrandt book that’s not too expensive, this also does the trick: his portraits do show his mastery & his evolution.
If you want an overview that is complete and affordable, get the Van de Wetering for the paintings. Good, complete overviews of etchings and drawings aren’t easy to find, so the the Complete Taschen is impossible to beat, even though it costs 150 euros. Full reviews of both of the Complete books are forthcoming, when I finish them fully.
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Good books on jellyfish are hard to find – there hardly exist any. I’ve had the German Quallen by Thomas Heeger (2004) for years, and that really seems the most comprehensive scientific monograph on the subject: someone should translate that in English. I’m fascinated by the subject, so when I saw Williams’ book reviewed in The Economist I bought it instantly.
Well, the English pendant to Quallen this is not. At only 180 pages and only 96 illustrations, this feels like an opportunity gone wrong. Williams has written a very strange text: it fails to find focus, as this book tries to present a bird’s eye view on jellyfish as a phenomenon, both biological as cultural. We get some biology, but also quite a few pages on the history of jellyfish research, dating all the way back to the 16th century, and before to Aristotle & Pliny the Elder, plus some random ruminations on jellyfish in popular culture – with stuff like a movie still from Finding Nemo, a picture of a Roman mosaic of the mythological figure Medusa, contemporary glass art jellyfish, and a paragraph on Margaret Atwood using jellyfish as a metaphor. What’s worse: the biology and the cultural remarks are generally woven together, making for a disjointed reading experience.
One has to wonder what the target audience for this little book is: this is not exactly a popular science book: terms like ‘phylum’ or ‘strobilation’ are used without explanation, but the cultural ruminations are thin, and even a bit trite. On page 127 Williams talks about an eccentric Japanese professor doing songs about jellyfish in a funny costume, and on the next page the word ‘prion’ is used. In the end, all the culture stuff is just musings, variations on the fact that jellyfish are strange and fascinating and alien. They fail to be true cultural science: for instance, Williams claims jellyfish tend to be used more in poems than in prose – but this isn’t backed up by research.
The book is part of the Animal series by Reaktion books, and this broad view on the animal in question seems a bit of a template for a text that had to fit in under 200 pages. As a result, the biology side is a bit underdeveloped. Williams read through the scientific literature, and knows his stuff, so much is clear. He manages to provide quite a few interesting tidbits of information, and luckily, I did learn a few things. But sadly, he hardly digs deep, and things I would have liked a full page on only get a sentence or a short paragraph. It’s good as an introduction, but would hardly satisfy anyone with an academic interest in the matter – except maybe for the bibliography and the references.
There is a silver lining though: in that bibliography, I discovered a 2016 monograph on jellyfish I wasn’t aware of – Jellyfish: A Natural History by Lisa-ann Gershwin. I’ve ordered that, and I hope that will scratch my itch more thoroughly. (It did, my review is here.)
BLACK SWAN GREEN – David Mitchell (2006)
While I knew this was a semi-autobiographical novel about a 13-year old boy in the 80ies, and not really speculative fiction, I still expected something more. 2014’s The Bone Clocks blew me away – and not because of its speculative elements, but just because Mitchell wrote such a great, human book – judged by all kinds of parameters.
Black Swan Green is a bit too one-dimensional for me: one year in a boy’s life, trapped with his stammer, in the dissolving marriage of his parents, in the social world that is other kids in a small town. Been there, done that – so to say. It didn’t surprise me, it didn’t engage me and I didn’t learn anything, so I decided to jump ship at 50%. I cannot fault David Mitchell – the language is great, there are some excellent scenes, and the young protagonist’s voice is convincing, but this was not the book for me. I’m simply not into the subject matter, something I found out while reading.
If you do like books about teenagers: there’s a significant chance you’ll like this, a lot even.