Tag Archives: Non-fiction

VINCENT VAN GOGH: THE COMPLETE PAINTINGS – Rainer Metzger (1989)

Van Gogh cover

Just to be clear: generally speaking, this book is amazing: it collects all his surviving paintings (871!), in overall good quality reproductions. It also has an extensive biographical text, zooming in on all of Van Gogh’s life phases. While the first edition is already 30 years old, powerhouse Taschen has put out a new, shiny edition that’s easily available, and under 30 euros… Really! Best bargain ever!!

If you are interested in Van Gogh, you might be interested in the things that struck me most while reading – I list those at the end of this review.
First, I want to address some minor issues for those that might be interested in buying this book, although I have to say, given the price, none of those should even stop you to consider getting out your wallet.

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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

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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

‘DARK MATTER’ – ‘THE DOOR’ – BRUEGEL – BERCKMANS

After the jump: 5 new reviews, as announced in a new format.

First up is Dark Matter, the 2016 scifi bestseller by Blake Crouch. After that, I write a bit on The Door by Magda Szabó, which floored me. Really, get that. Two books about Pieter Bruegel follow. I’ve been reading up on him in preparation of a possible visit to the once in a lifetime Bruegel exhibition in Vienna. Catch that if you can, it runs until January 13, 2019, and it’s incredible how many of his surviving paintings they managed to get on loan. One of those Bruegel books, a biography, is in Dutch, as is the review. This post ends with another recent biography, in Dutch as well, on the Flemish writer J.M.H. Berckmans, who died 10 years ago.

Next time I hope to tackle Blindsight and H is For Hawk. Happy 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