Tag Archives: 2010s

REMBRANDT SELF-PORTRAITS (2019) – JELLYFISH (Williams, 2020) – BLACK SWAN GREEN (Mitchell, 2006)

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.

Continue reading

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

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.

Continue reading

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…

Continue reading

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%!

Continue reading

REMBRANDT & HERZOG

2 short reviews for now. I will post a longer one on The Ethnic Phenomenon soon, which again won’t be a review of a speculative work of fiction. However, I’m pleased to report I’ve finally started rereading Dune a few days ago – so I hope to review that in a few weeks.

If you’re not interested in the books, do check out my Werner Herzog documentary recommendations at the end, and the tragic lesson at the end of the Rembrandt review.


Rembrandt's Portrait of a Young Gentleman

REMBRANDT’S PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG GENTLEMAN – Jan Six (2018)

The back cover promises this account of how Jan Six discovered a new portrait by Rembrandt to be a “thriller”: sadly this is not the case. Six’s writing is dull and bland, and there is simply no tension whatsoever present, except at the very beginning, when Six spots the painting at Christie’s – it’s ironic that exactly that turns out to be a false account, but more on that later.

If you’ve read anything about Rembrandt by Ernst Van de Wetering – the leading Rembrandt expert – there won’t be that much to learn from this book about the practice of how 17th century paintings are ascribed to a painter, or on Rembrandt’s painterly processes. If you’re new to reading Rembrandt scholarship, this is an easy and quick crash course though. So, your milage may vary.

Continue reading

DESDEMONA AND THE DEEP – C.S.E. Cooney (2019)

Desdemona and the deep

C.S.E. Cooney’s collection Bone Clocks was fantastic – one of my favorite fantasy reads ever. It won a World Fantasy Award, and the titular novella The Bone Swans Of Amandale was nominated for a Nebula. So I was pleased to see Desdemona And The Deep published by Tor: her first longer form publication. I wrote ‘longer form’, and not ‘long form’, as generally I’ve seen Desdemona And The Deep referred to as a ‘novella’ – I guess it says something about the inflation of the fantasy market that a 220-page story can’t just be called a novel.

Anyhow, it’s the third book in the Dark Breakers series. The previous installments The Breaker Queen and The Two Paupers – both about 88 pages – were only published in magazines and as Kindle editions by Fairchild Books, and there’s talk of Tor reissuing them. The stories are set in the same world, but each can be read as stand alone.

That world is a world in three parts: Athe (more or less like regular Earth in a 1920ish setting), Valwode, a magic country in between where Gentry lives, and beneath that, Bana The Bonekingdom, where goblins dwell.

As for the story, this is what the back cover promises: the spoiled daughter of a rich mining family must retrieve the tithe of men her father promised to the world below. On the surface, her world is rife with industrial pollution that ruins the health of poor factory workers while the idle rich indulge themselves in unheard-of luxury. Below are goblins, mysterious kingdoms, and an entirely different hierarchy.

As you instantly see, it ticks a couple of 2019’s boxes: pollution, social justice, inequality. It’s not overtly on the cover, but you can add an explicit transgender story line to that list. I have to say Bone Swans was much more amoral, much less grounded in today’s political debates.

Continue reading

HUMAN TREES – Matthew Revert (2017)

Human Trees

Melbourne’s Matthew Revert probably doesn’t ring a bell for most regular visitors of this blog – Human Trees is not exactly sci-fi. Yet he has made quite a name for himself within a small circle of experimental music lovers, with releases on seminal labels like Graham Lambkin’s Kye, and Jon Abbey’s Erstwhile Records. Known on a larger scale is his graphic design, Revert being “perhaps the most influential and sought-after graphic designer in indie publishing” as noted by Gabino Iglesias in his glowing review of this novel.

Human Trees is Revert’s fifth book. It might be of interest to some speculative fiction fans, as some of those like their fiction weird and a bit surreal. This has a good dose of that – it is mainly set in the waiting rooms of a hospital where clocks and other timekeeping devices don’t function. I have seen other reviewers casually throw around names like David Lynch, Kafka and Beckett, so if those references trigger you: please read on.

Continue reading

RECURSION – Blake Crouch (2019)

Recursion

2016’s Dark Matter was excellent: yes, it was light & fun, a thriller, but it was also a truly clever story in a multiverse setting that didn’t short circuit logically. Blake Crouch tried to emulate that succesful formula again in his latest book, this time using time travel as a way to conjure up multiple versions of reality.

Just to get things out of the way: Recursion starts promising, and overall it’s a fast paced page turner, but halfway the book it becomes clear this really is pulp of the worst sort. Blake pulls the quantum card casually – using just a few sentences – trying to justify nonsense: generally a good tell to spot bluffing.

Sadly, it only gets worse after that, utterly failing at inner consistency – even though Blake flashes “Clifford Johnson, Ph.D., professor in the Physics and Astronomy Department at the University of Southern California” in the acknowledgments. Clifford “provided valuable insight in the final stages of the manuscript.” Blake talked to some professor: the hallmark of serious science fiction! But obviously, “all mistakes, assumptions, and crazy theories are mine alone”. You see: even the acknowledgments are riddled with cliché. When Blake near the end of the novel suddenly jerks “micro black holes”, wormholes and muons out of his hat, it becomes clear Clifford didn’t save the novel from being preposterous.

Continue reading

FALL OR, DODGE IN HELL – Neal Stephenson (2019)

Fall Or Dodge In Hell

Stephenson’s first new single author book since 2015 is yet again a whopper: 883 pages. Seveneves was a love it or hate it affair: page after page crammed with technical details about what would happen if the moon would “blow up without warning and for no apparent reason.” 2017’s The Rise And Fall of D.O.D.O., co-written with Nicole Galland, was a much lighter affair about time travel and witches – a breezy beach read I enjoyed, yet it lacked the single-minded urgency of Seveneves or the original brilliance of Anathem.

Fall or, Dodge in Hell falls somewhere in between: Stephenson caters to a larger audience again, without an overdose of scientific stuff, and hardly any difficult vocabulary – he (or his editor) even felt the need to explain references like one to M.C. Escher – but at the same time this is not mere entertainment.

Like Seveneves, Fall is actually 2 books in one. The second storyline appears after about 300 pages, and alternates more or less evenly with the first one for a couple of hundred pages, after which it dominates practically all of the final 200. In Seveneves the final part was far-future scifi, while Fall‘s second book is marketed as high fantasy – something it is not, as I’ll get back to in a few seconds.

It’s of note that this book isn’t really about Richard ‘Dodge’ Forthrast, even though he is the titular character. Dodge was the main character in REAMDE and Stephenson says he picked Dodge to recur because he liked writing him. Much to my surprise, he hardly figures in the book, at least as his biological self. (I haven’t read REAMDE, and Fall is a standalone book for sure.)

Shouldn’t you know already: Fall is about mind uploading after death, and a big chunk of the book is about executing Dodge’s last will and testament, after he suddenly dies at the very beginning. He wants his brain frozen, so it can be uploaded to a digital world when the technology comes into existence. As such, Fall starts in a very near-future setting, and we spend quite some time in the next 20 years or so. At the end of the book, we’re about a century from 2019.

The Dodge that manifests in the digital realm is simply a different character. A flat character. Which takes us straight to this novel weakness: the final 200 pages. If you allow me to pan those first, I’ll end with what makes this book worth a read.

Continue reading

SENLIN ASCENDS – Josiah Bancroft (2013, 2017)

Senlin Ascends

On the fence about this one. Praised/hyped widely, this debut was first self-published in 2013, and picked up by Orbit in 2017. You’ve probably read it elsewhere, but Senlin Ascends is the first in a four book series – The Books Of Babel – about a headmaster on a quest to find his wife, which he lost while on their honeymoon in the Tower of Babel. Not the biblical one, but a mammoth with an unknown number of ‘ringdoms’, in a steampunkish setting. Thomas Senlin transforms from a quiet armchair bibliophile to an air-balloon pirate in the process.

While lots of reviewers rave about the prose, to me, it felt different. It’s generally okay for sure – it does the job telling an escapist story which main goal is entertainment – but it didn’t ring truthful to me. I guess I should not expect natural speech in a fantasy story like this, but there’s an artificiality to Bancroft’s wordiness that made me aware of the fact I was reading a 21st century book trying to masquerade as something set in a secondary world at the dawn of electricity.

Continue reading

THE BONE CLOCKS – David Mitchell (2014)

The Bone Clocks

What a fantastic book this is. Or rather 6 books. David Mitchell’s sixth novel is a tour de force. Mitchell is no small name: Cloud Atlas gathered widespread praise and attention – and also in The Bone Clocks he serves a grand narrative via 6 connected stories across 6 points in time – from 1984 to 2043, seasoned with a few shorter asides going back to earlier centuries. And similarly, The Bone Clocks is genre defying in a manner that’s pretty singular: the bulk of the book being straight forward literary fiction, but nonetheless with a backbone that’s firmly supernatural fantasy, and a final part that is straightforward, hard hitting dystopian near-future science fiction. This should appeal to nearly any type of reader, and I think it’s a masterpiece – not a term I whip out lightly.

I will return to the significance and impact of the final 6th in the second half of this review, and that part might be of interest for those of you who’ve read this book 3 or 4 years ago. It might be time to reconsider a few things. But first let me get a few other, more general remarks out of the way.


I haven’t read Cloud Atlas, or any of his other books, so I can’t comment on whether this title is better or not – and part of the answer to that question will be taste – but I can’t shake the feeling this is Mitchell’s magnus opus – for now. Written in a seemingly effortless and tasty prose, filled with real characters, genuine emotions, strong & urgent themes relevant to us all – this isn’t only escapist reading. Add to that a broad, kaleidoscopic feel, and an intricately constructed plot that’s obviously visible to a degree, yet so confident that you do not mind seeing the construction – as one does not mind seeing the brushstrokes when examining a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh up close, on the contrary even: seeing the actual brushstrokes and how they work in the composition is part of the joy.

Continue reading

THE EMOTIONAL FOUNDATIONS OF PERSONALITY: A NEUROBIOLOGICAL AND EVOLUTIONARY APPROACH – Kenneth L. Davis & Jaak Panksepp (2018)

the emotional foundations of personality

The main ideas of this book were first formulated by Jaak Panksepp, the psychobiologist and neuroscientist who became a wee bit famous outside the field for his research about laughter in non-human animals, especially laughing rats. He died before it was finished, and this volume could be considered his crowning achievement. The Emotional Foundations of Personality: A Neurobiological and Evolutionary Approach is hard to review, as I’m not really the target audience.

The book is definitely not without merit, but for the general reader there are some problems. For starters, let me try to break those down.

Afterwards I’ll highlight what this reader found to be the interesting take-aways. That list should be of interest to those readers of this blog who don’t care for criticism of this book, but do care about their emotions and their brain

Continue reading

BLINDSIGHT – Watts (2006) & H IS FOR HAWK – Macdonald (2014)

BLINDSIGHT – Peter Watts (2006)

Blindsight

Blindsight is a contemporary classic of Hard SF. I’ve known about the book for years, but I was put off by the fact that it features a vampire – supposedly they did exist, as a kind of side branch of human evolution, and were resurrected using gene technology. I thought that to be very gimmicky. I also got the impression Watts likes to show off all the scientific papers he’s read, adding to an overall braggy vibe that didn’t appeal to me.

I did give The Freeze-Frame Revolution a shot though, a 2018 novella by Watts – review here. Turns out I liked that a lot, so I decided to take on Blindsight.

While it is not without problems, I enjoyed reading it a lot. Watts wrote a page turner about first contact. His ideas are often wild and especially the first two thirds of the novel are among the best the genre has to offer – if you don’t expect your reading to spoon feed you that is. Easy breezy reading it is not.

Continue reading

4 SHORT REVIEWS

After I finished the fantastic Version Control, I read the excellent Keith Rowe biography by Brian Olewnick. I might still review that, but it’s a hard review to write for an audience unfamiliar with Rowe’s particular branch of experimental music.

Sadly, after those 2 great books, I’ve hit three I did not even finish. That and the relentless summer heat didn’t really urge me to start writing the reviews. Fortunately, that streak of bad reading luck came to an end, as I’ve also read a great, recent SF novella by Peter Watts, and finished yet another book on Rembrandt.

As the summer drought is still not over, I’ve decided I simply won’t bother trying to write longer, in-depth reviews for these books. I won’t even try to write up Hard To Be A God, the 1964 political allegory by the Strugatsky brothers, and the first book in that row of DNFs. I stopped after only 40 pages, not enough to write something meaningful, except that it was all too obviously allegorical for my tastes. Anyhow, without further ado, here’s those 4 mini-reviews…

Continue reading