Tag Archives: Non-fiction

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

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KEITH ROWE: THE ROOM EXTENDED – Brian Olewnick (2018)

Keith Rowe The Room Extended

I’ve started this review three times, and always deleted what I had. This is version number 4. Not that this will be much better, but the only approach left to me is to start with stating how difficult this review is to write.

There’s two reasons for that. The first is that most regular readers of this blog are totally unfamiliar with Keith Rowe and his kind of experimental music, and I don’t really feel like writing a few paragraphs explaining it. Including links to YouTube videos might be an option – but Rowe’s is generally delicate music that doesn’t translate well via laptop or smartphone speakers, so I’m not sure that would convince anyone who’s not already into the fold. I will post a list of my 5 favorite Rowe albums after the review, should you be interested. While for some this might seem extreme music – both in its harshness and its silent, subdued nature – for me these albums resonate emotionally in the most profound way possible.

The second reason is a gratitude towards both Keith Rowe and Brian Olewnick I simply don’t feel for any other subject or writer I’ve reviewed on this blog. Rowe is one of the very few musicians that changed the way I think about music, and the one that changed it in the most fundamental way possible. Dark Rags, his duo recording with saxophonist Evan Parker, truly was a gateway album that took me from jazz and free improvisation to another world entirely, a world I am still exploring more than 15 years later. Most of my other musical fads have faded long since – it’s only very occasionally I put on an album by Anthony Braxton, let alone one by Frank Zappa.

Olewnick has been a guide into that world as well, as he pointed me in the direction of a myriad of other musical gems, via reviews on his Just Outside blog, and in the online community that once existed on the I Hate Music forum – in the days before Facebook and smartphones destroyed message boards.

The importance of music in my life can hardly be overstated, and both Rowe and Olewnick have been key figures – so there’s the reason for a certain kind of diffidence, a trepidation that led me to delete 3 earlier versions of this text.

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THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF CHILDHOOD – David F. Lancy (2014)

The Anthropology Of Childhood

I bought David Lancy’s The Anthropology Of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings a few weeks after I learned I would become a father. It has been lying around for about two years, and as my daughter is starting to say the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’, now felt like the right time to start it. Verbally expressing preferences is a big deal on the road to personhood.

Lancy is a Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Utah State University, who wrote and edited several books on childhood and culture, starting his own research in the 1970ies. This book feels like a summary of the entire field, and can be considered Lancy’s crowning achievement. He draws on his own research here and there, but the bulk of this book is based on Lancy’s reading of countless other sources, giving it a vast scope.

On the back cover, Barry Bogin of Loughborough University puts it like this: “the most comprehensive, and perhaps only, review of the human child in terms of evolutionary biology and sociocultural anthropology. Based on the best of theory and field ethnography, it is essential for any study of human development and human nature.”

I read the 2nd edition, which adds over 750 new sources to the first edition that appeared in 2008. 750 extra sources: that should be an indication of this book’s thoroughness. There’s 104 pages of bibliography, plus a 6-page author index, a 5-page topic index and a 7-page society index – all small print. The text itself is 410 pages long, riddled with quotes from other studies.

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GYPSY – Plus… – Carter Scholz (2015)

GypsyKim Stanley Robinson fans beware: Carter Scholz is a buddy of his, they go hiking in the Sierras together. It shows, both on the cover of this little gem, and in the content itself.

Gypsy Plus… is a 146 page booklet in the PM Press Outspoken Authors series. Its main attraction is the novella Gypsy (97 pages), plus 2 shorter stories (The Nine Billion Names Of God, 10 pages, from 1984 – not the same as the Clarke title by the way, and Bad Pennies, 8 pp., 2009), a political essay on contemporary US politics (The United States Of Impunity, 14 pp.) and a 12-page interview with the author.

Gypsy is hard SF about a team of 21st century scientists who crowd-source a secret starship and abandon a doomed Earth for the Alpha Centauri system. Scholz says an interesting thing in the interview:

I’ve never seen an SF story take full stock on how hard, maybe impossible interstellar travel is going to be. Gypsy is my attempt to do it “with the net up” as the “hard SF” writers say. Even in the most rigorous hard SF, you always reach the hand-wave moment where the net drops to permit some bit of story development. I wanted to play it straight and let the story come out of the constraints of the physics. Continue reading

FAVORITE ART BOOKS

A couple of months ago I moved the bulk of my art book collection to another room. I decided to keep a small part, favorites, on my regular shelves. I’ve written a bit on each of those 20 titles below – 20 being just a coincidence by the way.

It is very much intended as a book list, not a list of favorite artists, as that would include a lot more names. The titles are mainly from established contemporary artists, with just three older painters – three big ones, yes.

Click on the covers to be taken to the publisher’s website or some other resource – with more extensive text on the book and the artist.

I’ve included images of artworks too: click those to enhance.


KADER ATTIA – The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures
Greenbox, 2014, 176 pages

Kader Attia cover

In 2012, my visit to dOCUMENTA (13) would have been a bit of a disappointment if it weren’t for two artists. One of those is Kader Attia. His installation The Repair From Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures was jaw dropping, the highlight being slides showing repaired African statues and the likes next to the mended faces of mutilated soldiers from the First World War. The book has all slides, and more. A beautiful edition, full of the uncanny.

Kader Attia work Continue reading

REMBRANDT: THE LATE WORKS – J. Bikker & G.J.M. Weber (2014)

rembrandt-the-late-worksAs I’m a bit bogged down in the 700 pages of Erikson’s epic Gardens Of The Moon, I’ve decided to do a review of an art book I’ve just finished. I will finish that first book of The Malazan series, I like it a lot, but it’s just such a slow, massive read, and on top of that it has been a busy few weeks too. So here’s some thoughts on Rembrandt! There’s more pictures after the jump!


I had the pleasure of coming of age in a group of friends heavily interested in contemporary art – 2 of them painters themselves – and so I’ve spent quite some time of my early twenties in art museums and galleries. I still do, but to a much, much lesser extent. During those years, I’ve come to realize that the history of art has a lot to offer too, and that art doesn’t need to be new and shiny to be of interest. I kinda already knew that, as I cried seeing Botticelli’s fifteenth century masterpiece Allegory of Spring in the Uffizi in Florence when I was 17. But it was only in 2007, when I saw a documentary on contemporary Belgian painter Sam Dillemans, that I gained the right mental tools to really look at “old” art. Dillemans is a huge Van Gogh fan, and he uses Van Gogh to explain that it’s not really important what you paint, but how you paint it. That’s obvious maybe, but to my 28-year old self it was revelatory.

Enter me, 35, seeing Rembrandt Van Rijn’s final self-portrait in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, July 2014. That museum has Vermeer’s The Girl With The Pearl Earing too, but the 1669 self-portrait is the true gem of the collection. I was struck by lightning. I had seen paintings by Rembrandt before, but never one of his late works. The way he painted his hair, topped with a kind of turban or ribbon, is simply stunning. In a way, what I saw was the birth of impressionist and even expressionist painting, already in the 17th century. It took me half an hour before I could continue to the next painting, and before leaving the museum, I returned to it again. A profound delight.

Zelfportret, 1669

So when The National Gallery in London and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam put on an historic, first time exhibition devoted to Rembrandt’s later works, I was thrilled. The London show ran from October 2014 to January 2015, and travelled to Amsterdam afterwards, from February to May 2015. I saw the Amsterdam exhibition. It was amazing.

I didn’t buy the exhibition’s catalogue afterwards, but the taught of it kept nagging, and a few weeks ago I did order it. Jonathan Bikker & Gregor J.M. Weber have done an excellent job in putting together a clear yet detailed book on Rembrandt’s later works. The book includes contributions of the editors, and Majoerie E. Wieseman, Erik Hinterding, Marijn Schapelhouman and Anna Krekeler. It has 325 pages and tons of illustrations.

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ARMAGEDDON IN RETROSPECT – Kurt Vonnegut (2008)

img_20160914_153857047Armageddon in Retrospect and Other New and Unpublished Writings on War and Peace was published exactly one year after Kurt Junior Vonnegut’s death on April 11, 2007. It’s a diverse collection: a moving 10 page introduction by his son Mark, a horrifically blunt 3 page letter from Kurt to his family, dated May 29, 1945 – written in Germany right after the war, a speech he was supposed to deliver on April 27, 2007 in Indianapolis, and – the bulk of the book – 11 short stories, undated, ranging from 4 pages to 26 pages each. Armageddon In Retrospect is also illustrated by Vonnegut’s characteristic drawings, often including text.

The stories’ titles are as follows: Wailing Shall Be In All StreetsGreat DayGuns Before ButterHappy Birthday, 1951Brighten UpThe Unicorn TrapUnknown SoldierSpoilsJust You And Me, SammyThe Commandant’s Desk and Armageddon In Retrospect. Two of those are explicitly speculative in nature: Great Day is set in 2037 and features a time machine, and the title story is a kind of satirical alternative history featuring demonology. The other stories are generally ‘regular’ stories about war, in Vonnegut’s smooth style. Wailing Shall Be In All Streets isn’t really a story, but a straightforward account of his experience of Dresden’s bombing – one of the most gruesome war crimes committed by the Allied forces during World War 2.

The real value of this book aren’t really the stories. They’re good, don’t get me wrong, and some are even excellent – Spoils is haunting in its short, brutal simplicity. But the real value is the introduction, the letter, the speech, Wailing Shall Be In All Streets and a few of the illustrations. Combined they provide a look at the tormented person that’s behind the facade of witty satire. It’s not that the tragedy doesn’t shine through in his other writing – the facade is cracked, and translucent in places – but these texts provide a direct, unobstructed look.

confetti-8-vonnegut Continue reading