Archive for the 'Concats' Category

Recent Reading 10

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books.

David Eagleman [2010]: Sum: Tales from the Afterlives.  (London, UK:  Canongate).  A superb collection of very short stories, each premised on the assumption that something (our bodies, our souls, our names, our molecules, etc) lives beyond death. Superbly fascinating.  One will blow your mind!  (HT: WPN).

A. C. Grayling [2013]:  Friendship.  (New Haven, CT and London, UK:  Yale University Press).

Andrew Sullivan [1998]:  Love Undetectable:  Reflections on Friendship, Sex and Survival.  (London, UK: Vintage, 1999).

Michael Blakemore [2013]: Stage Blood. (London, UK: Faber & Faber).  A riveting account of Blakemore’s time at the National Theatre in London.

William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac [1945/2008]:  And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks. (London, UK:  Penguin Classics).   Mostly writing alternate chapters, this is a fictional account of events based on the death of David Kammerer at the hands of Lucien Carr.

Jack Kerouac [1968]:  Vanity of Duluoz.   (London:  Penguin Modern Classics, 2001).

Charles McCarry [1974]:  The Tears of Autumn. (London, UK:  Duckworth Overlook, 2009).   The assassination of JFK as a conspiracy organized by the family of the Diem brothers, involving Cuban military officials, the KGB, and the Mafia.

John Williams [1965]:  Stoner. (London, UK: Vintage, 2012).  Alerted by the enthusiasm of the late Norman Geras, and reinforced by the praise of Julian Barnes,  I starting reading this book with keen anticipation.  I should have known better:  someone who liked the books of Philip Roth clearly had a literary taste to be wary of.     Stoner was a great disappointment, and certainly does not belong in any collection of Great American Novels.

Is the book great literature?  Well, frankly, no.  It is well-written, no question, but not well enough.  We are told the main character William Stoner has no friends while an undergraduate, but nothing in the thin preceeding pages would explain why.   We are told he switches from studying agriculture to literature after an epiphany in a compulsory literature class, but this paragraph (and it is just a paragraph) is very thin indeed.   Why did he have this epiphany?  Where did it come from?  Nothing beforehand (in the book) would justify this event, and the event itself is only barely described.   Do people make such a switch so often, that no explanation is needed?  Not in my experience.

I can see that members of the literati – for instance, Julian Barnes – would like to read about people who come to love literature and who then devote their life to its teaching.  But Williams merely states these attributes of William Stoner as facts, without providing any compelling justification – not psychological, nor social, nor familial, nor cultural, nor literary, not spiritual, nor nothing – for these facts.     Indeed, there is hardly any justification at all, let alone a compelling one.

The narration is by a third-person narrator, and he or she seems to know what is inside Dr Stoner’s head.  Moreover, every other character is a cypher to the narrator, as (presumably) they are to Stoner himself.  One is therefore tempted to read the narration as being in the first-person.  But then, some of it is too vague for either a knowledgeable first-person or an omniscient third:  on pager 109, for instance, we read that Stoner disposed of his $2000 inheritance by giving “a few hundred dollars” to his parents’ black farm worker.    A few hundred?  Surely, Stoner knew at the time exactly how much he gave.  Likewise, surely, an omniscient narrator would also know the amount.   This is sloppy writing, and it undermines the case for the narrator being either first- or an omniscient third-person.

Similarly, we are told several times that Stoner had a deep friendship with Dave Masters, who is killed in the Great War.   But although this friendship is mentioned, it is not described in any depth.  It is certainly not invoked, nor is an invocation even attempted.  So, again, we come away thinking the narrator barely knows about which he speaks.   Just how credible, then, is anything the narrator says?    The book undermines its own case.

Why has the book proven popular?   Well it is more popular in Europe than in America.  I believe the answer to this disparity goes to something the former British Labour MP, Bryan Gould, once said when comparing political life in Europe with that in Australia, New Zealand, or North America:  In the New World, anyone upset by a social problem tries to fix it.  In the Old World, anyone upset by a social problem tries to live with it.   Stoner is a book about a man who lives with every major problem of his life, accommodating himself to an unhappy marriage, to a wife who appears on the edge of madness, to the end of his only happy relationship, to an alcoholic daughter, to not seeing his only grandchild, to an unsatisfying and tedious job, to an unfair assignment of work duties, to no promotions, to a lack of close friendships, to public gossip and innuendo about his marriage and relationships, to the death of his parents and his one apparently-close friend, while only ever once, it seems, standing up for himself.  And the counter-attack he launches is in such a small and picayune way, hurting the very students he is supposed to care for, that it can hardly be worthy of any emulation.

Certainly such people exist (indeed, the Old World is full of them),  but this novel never presents a compelling case that this particular man, William Stoner, should behave in this way.   Indeed, it hardly presents any case at all – the writing is all tell, and no show.    The power of showing is demonstrated by the one scene where the author does invoke the events, rather than merely mentioning them: the PhD upgrade viva of Charles Walker, where we can read the dialog for ourselves, and draw our own conclusions.    If only the author had done this more often, the book would have been much better.

 




Theatre

Having created lists of concerts I have attended, bands I have heard, galleries I have visited, etc, I overlooked theatre and dance productions I have seen.  Herewith a list, sometimes annotated, to be updated as and when I remember additional events.

  • Solo for Two, Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, London Coliseum, London, August 2014.
  • Blackshaw Theatre New Writing Night, 29 July 2014, Horse and Stables Pub, Waterloo, London.  Of the events featured this night, only Gravy, written by Harold Kimmel and directed by Christian Durham, was worth writing home about:   this presented a very funny NYPD investigation of the crime scene that ends Hamlet, with the Ghost and Horatio called in for questioning over the multiple murders, incest, and various perversions discovered.
  • Gulf, performed by Pivot Theatre Company, written by Jeff Scott and Alister MacQuarrie, directed by Charlie Kenber with music by Patrick Sale, at Camden People’s Theatre, London, July 2014.   The play explored relationships between a mother and her teenage daughter, the daughter and her school headmaster, the mother and her colleagues and a psychiatrist, and issues of pedophilia, teenage sex, and the internet.   I found the play confusing, especially with actors switching roles apparently randomly, and lots of scenes made no clear sense.  Perhaps the play was about too many issues and too many relationships to be adequately covered in the time.   I liked the  music, as music, but not sure it worked with the play.
  • Measure for Measure in Cabaret, by King’s Shakespeare Company, directed by Lauren O’Hara and music by Henry Keynes Carpenter, final dress rehearsal, London, July 2014, prior to participation in the Bristol BardFest.
  • London Student Drama Festival 2014, Teatro Technis, Camden, London, 21 June 2014.  Five short plays: 12″; Honestly (both Imperial College); The Parting Glass (UCL); Lizards (SOAS); Guilty Parties (KCL).  Best by far was the KCL entry, very funny and well acted, written by Alister MacQuarrie, who rightly won Best Writer award for second year running. SOAS entry was workshopped and showed it; could have done with more work.  UCL play was an Oirish drama about The Troubles – oh so serious, so overdone, its conclusions telegraphed ahead of time, with melodramatic acting, cod accents, two anti-minimalist sets leaving nothing to our imaginations, an upright piano, and enough actors for a Cecil B. De Mille epic, including even a 5-person Celtic band on stage:  Holy Mother of Mercy was this awful!    For reasons unknown, this insult to those of us of Irish descent won award for best entry.   And speaking as indeed such a person, why must any Irish drama be accompanied by Celtic folk music, as if Irish people can’t appreciate any other type of music?  Has no one heard of John Field, James Galway, or the Vanbrugh Quartet?   Even The Messiah had its first performance in Dublin!  Five centuries of English condescension towards Ireland embodied in one folk band onstage tonight.
  • Another Country, by Julian Mitchell, directed by Jeremy Herrin, at Trafalgar Studios, Whitehall, London, June 2014.  A superb production of a play which imagines what events in an English public school in the 1920s might have led the Cambridge 5 to betray their country.  Rob Callender superb as the young Guy Burgess:  authentic, spirited, leopardesque, riveting.
  • Blackshaw Theatre New Writing Night, 27 May 2014, Horse and Stables Pub, Waterloo, London.
  • Trojan Barbie, by Christine Evans, by the King’s Players, King’s College London, under Holly Robinson (director) and Dan Bird (producer), in Tutu’s, KCLSU, Temple, London, March 2014.   Without question, one of the worst live performances I have had the misfortune to witness.
  • Copenhagen, by Michael Frayn, performed by Ria Abbott (Margrethe Bohr), Freddie Fullerton (Niels Bohr) and Tom Marsh (Werner Heisenberg), under Alister MacQuarrie (director), Aja Garrod (producer), and William Nash (executive producer) in the Old Anatomy Museum, King’s College London, Strand, March 2014.  Superbly acted and directed, this was theatre of a high professional standard, equal to any I have seen.    Another review is here.
  • Romeo and Juliet, by King’s College London English Literary Society, under W. Nash (director), at the Greenwood Theatre, London, February 2014.  An innovative, witty, and funny treatment, superbly acted.
  • The Tempest, by King’s Shakespeare Company, under Hannah Elsy (director) and Aja Garrod (producer), at The Rag Factory, Heneage Street, Brick Lane, London, December 2013.  Outstanding performances by Imogen Free (Ariel) and Max Funcheon-Dinnen (Stephano).   The modern touches worked very well, and brought the play alive.  Was a full house.
  • The Magic Flute, by English National Opera, directed by Simon McBurney, London, December 2013.  As always with this director, there were some stunning visual effects, for instance, the shoals of actors representing birds, each fluttering folded paper to produce a rustling sound.
  • Marlowe’s Edward II, by The National Theatre, London, October 2013.
  • Richard II, starring Eddie Redmayne and directed by Michael Grandage, at the Donmar Warehouse, London, December 2011.
  • Hamlet, by Schaubuhne Berlin, at the Barbican Theatre, London, December 2011.
  • Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, Liverpool, 2004.
  • The Elephant Vanishes, by Theatre de Complicite, Lincoln Centre, New York, June 2004.
  • Hamlet, by Calixto Bieito, in Birmingham, September 2003.



Recent Reading 9

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books:

Anita Raghavan [2013]:  The Billionaire’s Apprentice:  The Rise of the Indian-American Elite and the Fall of the Galleon Hedge Fund.  (New York:  Business Plus).   This is a fascinating and excitingly-written account of the rise and fall of several people, many of them Americans of South Asian descent, associated with the activities of the Galleon hedge fund.  First among these is billionaire Tamil-American Raj Rajaratnam, founder of Galleon, and convicted insider-trader.  In the next tier are his many insider informants, primaily Rajat Gupta and Anil Kumar, both prominent partners of McKinsey and Company, a management consulting firm.  Indeed, Gupta was three times elected global MD of McKinsey by his fellow partners, and thus the book has lots of fascinating information about The Firm and its operations, incidental to the main story.

Insider trading is a strange crime.  Surely most traders engaged in trading for its own sake (and not hedging some activity or transaction in non-financial markets) seek to take advantage of something they know that others don’t, even if it is just clever or faster analysis, or the knowledge that comes from aggregating views across multiple trades.   And who, exactly, are the victims here, since any trading requires a willing counterparty?    But even if insider-trading is not considered an evil, there is great dishonour in breaching confidences gained in positions of trust, and there seems little doubt that Rajaratnam’s informants did that.

An odd feature of the book, where so many prominent Indian Americans and South-Asian businesspeople are name-checked, is the failure to mention Praful Gupta.   As far as I am aware, the two Guptas were no relation, and met when they were fellow students at Harvard Business School.  Rajat Gupta, in a newspaper interview in 1994, said they became and remained very good friends.  While Rajat pursued a career with McKinsey, Praful became a management consultant and partner with Booz, Allen & Hamilton, and later a senior executive with Reliance Industries.

An annoying feature of the writing is the author’s repeated confusion about tense.   On page 217, for instance, we read, “In 2005, Lloyd Blankfein’s predecessor and former secretary of the Treasury Henry M. “Hank” Paulson Jr. had approached Gupta about joining the Goldman board of directors.”  But Hank Paulson only became Secretary of the US Treasury in 2006, where he remained until January 2009.   At the time this sentence was written by Raghavan in 2012 or 2013, Paulson was a former Treasury Secretary, but not in 2005, the time referred to at the opening of the sentence.   There are similar instances of inaccurate or confused tense on pages 257, 288, 347, and 362, and no doubt more that I did not catch.  These appear so frequently that one is tempted to consider them not mere lapses nor evidence of a non-grammatical linguistic style, but indicative of a more fundamental difference between the author’s conceptualization of time and that of most speakers of English. There are also a number of confusions or ambiguities of subject and object, and of deictic markers, in sentences throughout the text.

 




Recent Reading 8

TheMothersofthePlazadeMayo-2004

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books:

  • Jason Matthews [2013]:  Red Sparrow (New York: Simon & Schuster). A debut spy-thriller by a 33-year CIA clandestine service veteran,  this book is well-written and gripping, with plot twists that are unexpected yet plausible.    The book has placed the author in the same league of Le Carre and McCarry, and I recommend the book strongly.   As so often with espionage and crime fiction, the main weakness is the characterization – the players are too busy doing things in the world for us to have a good sense of their personalities, especially so for the minor characters.  Part of the reason for us having this sense, I think, is the sparsity of dialog through which we could infer a sense of personhood for each player.    And the main character, Nate Nash, gets pushed aside in the second half of the book  by the machinations of the other players.  In any case, the ending of the book allows us to meet these folks again.    Finally, I found the recipes which end each chapter an affectation, but that may be me.  The author missed a chance for a subtle allusion with solo meal cooked by General Korchnoi, which I mis-read as pasta alla mollusc, which would have made it the same as the last meal of William Colby.

 

  •  Henry A. Cumpton [2012]:  The Art of Intelligence:  Lessons from a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service. (New York:  Penguin).   A fascinating account of a career in espionage.    Crumpton reports an early foreign assignment in the 1980s in an African country which had had a war of liberation war, where the US had a close working relationship with the revolutionary Government of the country:  The only candidates that seem to fit this bill are Zimbabwe or possibly Mozambique.  Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF Government was so close to the USA in its early years that the Zimbabwe Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) had only two groups dealing with counter-subversion:  a group seeking to counter South African subversion and a group seeking to counter Soviet subversion.  Indeed, so great was the fear of Soviet subversion that the USSR was not permitted to open an embassy in Zimbabwe for the first two years following independence in 1980.

The book has four very interesting accounts:

1. Crumpton’s perceptive reflections on the different cultures of CIA and FBI, which are summarized in this post.

2.  The account of the preparati0ns needed to design, build, deploy, and manage systems of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs, or drones) in Afghanistan.  The diverse and inter-locking challenges – technical, political, strategic, managerial, economic, human, and logistic – are reminiscent of those involved in creating CIA’s U2 spy-plane program in the 195os (whose leader Richard Bissell I saluted here).

3.  The development of integrated Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for tactical anti-terrorist operations management in the early 2000s.  What I find interesting is that this took place a decade after mobile telecommunications companies were using GIS for tactical planning and management of engineering and marketing operations.  Why should the Government be so far behind?

4. An account of CIA’s anti-terrorist programs prior to 11 September 2011, including the monitoring and subversion of Al-Qaeda.  Given the extent of these programmes, it is now clear why CIA embarked on such an activist role following 9/11.  George Tenet remarked at the time (and his memoirs) that such a role would mean crossing a threshold for CIA, but until Crumpton’s book, I never understood why this enhanced  role had been accepted at the time by US political leaders and military leaders.  From Crumpton’s account, the reason for their acceptance was that CIA was the only security agency ready to step up quickly at the time.

  • Paul Vallely [2013]:  Pope Francis:  Untying the Knots. (London, UK:  Bloomsbury).  A fascinating account of the man who may revolutionize the Catholic Church.    Francis, first as Fr Jorge Bergoglio SJ and then as Archbishop and Cardinal, appears to have moved from right to left as he aged, to the point where he now embraces a version of liberation theology.   His role during the period of Argentina’s military junta of Jorge Videla is still unclear – he seems to have bravely hidden and help-escape leftist political refugees and activists, while at the same time, through dismissing them from Church protection, making other activitists targets of military actions.

Bergoglio seems to understand something his brother cardinals appear not to – that the Catholic Church (and other fundamentalist and evangelical Christian denominations) are not seen by the majority of people in the West any longer as places of saintliness, spiritual goodness, or charity, but as bastions of bigotry, irrationally opposed to individual freedom and to human happiness and fulfilment.  In its campaigns against gay marriage rights, euthenasia, abortion, and other private moral issues, the Church opposes free will not only of its own clergy and lay members, but also of other citizens who are not even Catholic adherents.   Such campaigns to limit the freedoms and rights of non-believers are presumptious, to say the least.  The Catholic Church does a great deal of unremarked good in the world, work which is sullied and undermined by the political campaigns and bigoted public statements of its leaders.

The book is poorly written, with lots of repetition, and several  chapters reprising the entire argument of the book, as if they had been stand-along newspaper articles.   The author clearly thinks his readers have the minds of gold-fish, since interview subjects are introduced repeatedly with descriptions, as if for the first time.

The photo shows one of the demonstrations of the The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, held weekly since 1977  to protest the junta’s kidnap, torture, and murder of Argentinian citizens.   We should not forget that the military regimes of South America, including the Argentinian junta of Videla, were supported not only by the Vatican and most local Catholic clergy (with some brave exceptions), but also by the US intelligence services, including during the administration of Jimmy Carter.




Recent reading 7

Berliner Ensemble

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books:

  • Igor Lukes [2012]: On the Edge of the Cold War: American Diplomats and Spies in Postwar Prague.  Oxford University Press.   Some comments here.
  • Randall Woods [2012]: Shadow Warrior: William Egan Colby and the CIA.  Basic Civitas Books. Colby comes across as remarkably liberal, pragmatic and sensible in this account of his life, promoting agrarian socialism and grass-roots democracy to beat the communists in South Vietnam, for example.
  • Roger Hermiston [2013]:  The Greatest Traitor: The Secret Lives of Agent George Blake.  Aurum Press.
  • C P Snow [1969]:  Variety of Men.  Penguin Books, second edition. (HT:  Saul Smilansky at Normblog.)
  • Charlotte Joko Beck [1997]: Everyday Zen: Love and Work.  Thorsons.
  • James Button [2013]:  Speechless: A Year in my Father’s Business.  Melbourne University Press.   A mention here.
  • Robert Dessaix [2012]: As I was Saying.  Random House Australia.  A typically erudite collection of talks and essays, as smooth as a gimlet.
  • Charles S. Maier [1999]:  Dissolution: The Crisis of Communism and the End of East Germany.  Princeton University Press.
  • Meredith Maran (Editor) [2013]:  Why We Write.  Plume.
  • Marci Shore [2013]:  The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe.  Crown Publishing Group, New York.
  • Thomas Nagel [2012]:  Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.  Oxford University Press USA.  Any book so heavily criticized by Brian Leiter has to be worth reading, and this was.

The photo shows the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, from 1954 home of the Berliner Ensemble.




Mathematicians of the 20th Century

With so many blogs being written by members of the literati, it’s not surprising that a widespread meme involves compiling lists of writers and books.  I’ve even succumbed to it myself.   Lists of mathematicians are not as common, so I thought I’d present a list of the 20th century greats.    Some of these are famous for a small number of contributions, or for work which is only narrow, while others have had impacts across many parts of mathematics.

Each major area of mathematics represented here (eg, category theory, computer science) could equally do with its own list, which perhaps I’ll manage in due course.  I’ve included David Hilbert, Felix Hausdorff and Bertrand Russell because their most influential works were published in the 20th century.  Although Hilbert reached adulthood in the 19th century, his address to the 1900 International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris greatly influenced the research agenda of mathematicians for much of the 20th century, and his 1899 axiomatization of geometry (following the lead of Mario Pieri) influenced the century’s main style of doing mathematics.   For most of the 20th century, mathematics was much more abstract and more general than it had been in the previous two centuries.    This abstract style perhaps reached its zenith in the work of Bourbaki, Grothendieck, Eilenberg and Mac Lane, while the mathematics of Thurston, for example, was a throwback to the particularist, even perhaps anti-abstract, style of 19th century mathematics.  And Perelman’s major contributions have been in this century, of course.

  • David Hilbert (1862-1943)
  • Felix Hausdorff (1868-1942)
  • Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)
  • Henri Lebesgue (1875-1941)
  • Godfrey Hardy (1877-1947)
  • LEJ (“Bertus”) Brouwer (1881-1966)
  • Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920)
  • Alonzo Church (1903-1995)
  • Andrei Kolmogorov (1903-1987)
  • John von Neumann (1903-1957)
  • Henri Cartan (1904-2008)
  • Kurt Gödel (1906-1978)
  • Saunders Mac Lane (1909-2005)
  • Leonid Kantorovich (1912-1986)
  • Alan Turing (1912-1954)
  • Samuel Eilenberg (1913-1998)
  • René Thom (1923-2002)
  • John Forbes Nash (1928- )
  • Alexander Grothendieck (1928- )
  • Michael Atiyah (1929- )
  • Steven Smale (1930- )
  • Paul Cohen (1934-2007)
  • Nicolas Bourbaki (1935- )
  • Stephen Cook (1939- )
  • William Thurston (1946-2012)
  • Edward Witten (1951- )
  • Andrew Wiles (1953- )
  • Richard Borcherds (1959- )
  • Grigori Perelman (1966- )

And here’s my list of great mathematical ideas.




Composers concat

While making lists of artists whose work speaks to me, here’s my list of classical composers likewise.  Of course, I don’t necessarily appreciate everything these composers wrote.

  • Johann Adam Reincken (1643-1722)
  • Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
  • Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
  • Johann Baptist Vanhal (1739-1813)
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
  • Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842)
  • Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
  • Johann Hummel (1778-1837)
  • Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
  • Louise Farrenc (1804-1875)
  • Juan Chrisostomo Arriaga (1806-1826)
  • Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847)
  • Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
  • Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
  • William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875)
  • Neils Gade (1817-1890)
  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
  • Antoni Stolpe (1851-1872)
  • Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
  • Alfred Hill (1869-1960)
  • Colin McPhee (1900-1964)
  • Aram Khachaturian (1903–1978)
  • Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
  • John Cage (1912-1992)
  • Jim Penberthy (1917-1999)
  • Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001)
  • Morton Feldman (1926-1987)
  • Peter Sculthorpe  (1929- )
  • Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996)
  • Richard Meale (1932-2009)
  • Terry Riley (1935- )
  • Steve Reich (1936- )
  • Philip Glass (1937- )
  • Louis Andriessen (1939- )
  • Michael Nyman (1944- )
  • Barry Conyngham (1944- )
  • John Adams (1947- )
  • Akira Nishimura (1953- )
  • Cecilie Ore (1954- )
  • Pascal Dusapin (1955- )
  • Andrew McGuiness
  • Christophe Bertrand (1981-2010).

The alert reader will notice the absence of Richard Wagner.   This is deliberate.




Artists concat

Here is a listing of visual artists whose work I like.    Minimalists and geometric abstractionists are over-represented, relative to their population in the world.    In due course, I will add posts about each of them.

  • Carel Fabritius (1622-1654)
  • Tao Chi (1641-1720)
  • Jin Nong (1687-c.1763)
  • Richard Wilson (1714-1782)
  • Thomas Jones (1742-1803)
  • Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849)
  • Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840)
  • John Sell Cotman (1782-1842)
  • Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858)
  • Thomas Cole (1801-1848)
  • Richard Parkes Bonington (1802–1828)
  • Thomas Chambers (1808-1869)
  • Thomas Moran (1837-1926)
  • Robert Delaunay (1885-1941)
  • Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943)
  • Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack (1893-1965)
  • László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946)
  • Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912–2004)
  • Agnes Martin (1912-2004)
  • Jackson Pollock (1912–1956)
  • Gunther Gerzso (1915-2000)
  • Michael Kidner (1917-2009)
  • Guanzhong Wu (1919–2010)
  • Carlos Cruz-Diez (1923- )
  • Fred Williams (1927-1982)
  • Donald Judd (1928-1994)
  • Sol LeWitt (1928-2007)
  • Bridget Riley (1931- )
  • Norval Morrisseau (1932–2007)
  • Dan Flavin (1933-1996)
  • Jean-Pierre Bertrand (1937- )
  • Hélio Oiticica (1937–1980)
  • Prince of Wales Midpul (c.1937-2002)
  • Peter Struycken (1939- )
  • Alighiero e Boetti (1940-1994)
  • Cildo Meireles (1948- )
  • Jeremy Annear (1949- )
  • Louise van Terheijden (1954- )
  • Doreen Reid Nakamarra (1955-2009)
  • Peter Doig (1959- )
  • Katie Allen
  • Els van ‘t Klooster (1985- )



Recent Reading 6

Hungarian torn flag 1956 in Budapest

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books:

  • Patricia Anderson [2009]:  Robert Hughes:  The Australian Years. (Sydney, Australia:  Pandora Press.)  A fascinating account of Robert Hughes’ time in Australia before his permanent departure abroad in the middle 1960s, sadly undermined by very poor organization, poor writing, and sloppy editing.  Where was the editor when we learn of a 1958 play written by Hughes, in which the lead “roll” in 1959 is acted by an undergraduate John Bell (p.68)?  And where again when Major Harold Rubin, wounded in WW I,  is  “invalidated” from the army (p. 116)?  But the worst offence against the reader is the book’s poor organization.  Each chapter begins afresh, as if each was a separate attempt to dissect Hughes and his circle, sometimes ignoring what we’d read in earlier chapters, and sometimes assuming we’ve already read to the end the book (or we know what he did with his life afterwards).   A new viewpoint per chapter is not an intrinsically bad way to organize such material, but this attempt is poorly done, as if the writer or publisher had decided to skip the editing stage.   The book embodies a promising idea undermined by poor execution.
  • Rupert Sheldrake [2012]:  The Science Delusion:  Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry.  (London, UK:  Coronet.)  This is a superb book, from one of the great scientific thinkers of our age.   That Sheldrake is not so regarded by many other scientists is indicative of the closed-mindedness of contemporary science, much of it as dogmatic and un-sceptical as any religious cult.  The grand foundation of myth of western science is that every claim and assumption is open to contestation, and by anyone, but the actual practice of most modern science is profoundly opposite to such openness.   This book should be compulsory reading by every trainee, practising, and retired scientist.
  • Robert Holmes [2012]: A Spy Like No Other: The Cuban Missile Crisis and the KGB Links to the Kennedy Assassination. (UK: Biteback Publishing).  This book was most disappointing.  The author has no evidence for his claim that Lee Harvey Oswald was a KGB agent, not even circumstantial evidence.  His claim is based only the thinnest of speculation, about what some KGB people might have been doing talking with certain people they may have met at certain places they may have been visiting for certain purposes they may have had.   In addition, it is sad to report that someone could write a book about the Kennedy assassination without being familiar with much of the contested nature of the evidence on the ancillary events.   Thus, we know that someone calling himself Lee Harvey Oswald visited the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City shortly before JFK’s assassination.   We don’t know for certain that this person was the Lee Harvey Oswald arrested in Dallas for that assassination.  Without that certainty, the main evidence for Holmes’ claim falls away.
  • Vladislav Zubok [2011]:  Zhivago’s Children:  The Last Russian Intelligentsia. (Cambridge, MA, USA:  Harvard University Press).   This is a fascinating and well-written cultural history of the Soviet shestidesiatniki, thepeople of the 60s, and the generation just before them, the people who came of age in the late 1940s and 1950s.   My only very small criticism is that Zubok focuses primarily on the literati, with much less attention paid to the matherati.   But that is a very small quibble on what is a superb book.
  • Anne Applebaum [2012]: Iron Curtain:  The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56. (London, UK:  Allen Lane.)   This is a very fine and interesting book, although not about the subject of its subtitle.   A more accurate subtitle would have been The Crushing of East Germany, Hungary and Poland 1944-56.   The author appears not to have interviewed anybody in Czechoslovakia, for example, whose experiences of the imposition of communism and communist party rule were subtly different to those three countries.   Ending in 1956 means the author is not really able to provide a compelling explanation for Poland’s exceptional treatment by the Soviet imperium — why did Khrushchev give way in the Soviet confrontation with Gomulka in 1956, for instance?   But that is a small criticism of a fascinating book.
  • Charles Gati [2006]: Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt. (Stanford, CA, USA:  Stanford University Press).  This is fine and careful account of the events leading up to and during the 1956 Hungarian revolution, by a someone who was present in Budapest at the time.  The book contains a thoughtful and well-argued political analysis of the alternatives open to each of the main actors during the crisis:  Imre Nagy and his supporters, his opponents, the Soviet leadership, and the American leadership.   It is clear from this analysis that the outcome could have been very different, creating in Hungary a socialism with a human face that would have been acceptable to and accepted by the Politburo of the Communist Party of the USSR.   However, such an outcome may never have been ever possible with these particular actors and their personalities.  I had not realized, for example, how poor a public speaker Nagy generally was, nor how usually indecisive.  It was also fascinating to read of the many public protests sympathetic to the Hungarian revolutionaries that took place in the USSR following the invasion of Hungary.



Two lists of books

In succession to this post which seems to have originated a meme, herewith two lists of novels – one list influential when younger, and the other later, with influence measured by strength of memory.  In each case, I include a couple of works  of non-fiction, because of their superb writing.

The rules only allow listing of one book per author.   In fact, all the books of some writers would merit inclusion.  In this group, I would include Brautigan, Camus, Conrad, Faulkner, Gordimer,  Ishiguro, H. James, Joyce, Maugham, Perec and Turgenev.

Influential when younger:

  • Albert Camus:  The Plague
  • JM Coetzee:  Waiting for the Barbarians
  • Joseph Conrad:  The Secret Agent
  • William Faulkner:  As I Lay Dying
  • Nadine Gordimer:  Burger’s Daughter
  • Joseph Heller:  Catch-22
  • Ruth Prawer Jhabvala:  Heat and Dust
  • James Joyce:  Ulysses
  • Franz Kafka:  The Trial
  • Arthur Koestler:  Darkness at Noon
  • William Least Heat-Moon:  Blue Highways:  A Journey into America
  • Doris Lessing:  The Diary of a Good Neighbour
  • Thomas Mann:  Dr Faustus
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez:  100 Years of Solitude
  • W. Somerset Maugham:  The Razor’s Edge
  • Herman Melville:  Moby Dick
  • Gerald Murnane:  Landscape with Landscape
  • Michael Ondaatje:  Coming Through Slaughter
  • Bertrand Russell:  The Autobiography
  • Jean-Paul Sartre:  Nausea
  • Mikhail Sholokhov:  And Quiet Flows the Don
  • Alice Walker:  The Color Purple
  • Patrick White:  Voss
  • Yevgeny Zamyatin:  We

Influential more recently:

  • Henry Adams:  The Education of Henry Adams
  • Richard Brautigan:  An Unfortunate Women:  A Journey
  • William Burroughs:  Naked Lunch
  • Italo Calvino:  If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller
  • Robert Dessaix:  Corfu
  • Shusaku Endo: Silence
  • Mark Henshaw:  Out of the Line of Fire
  • Kazuo Ishiguro:  An Artist of the Floating World
  • Henry James:  The Princess Casamassima
  • Ryszard Kapuscinski: The Emperor:  Downfall of an Autocrat
  • Naguib Mahfouz:  The Journey of Ibn Fattouma
  • Norman Mailer:  Harlot’s Ghost
  • Alberto Moravia:  Boredom
  • Georges Perec:  Things:  A Story of the Sixties
  • Antonio Tabucchi:  Pereira Maintains
  • Henry David Thoreau:  Cape Cod
  • Ivan Turgenev:  Fathers and Sons
  • Glenway Wescott:  The Pilgrim Hawk

As these lists may indicate, there are some writers (eg, James,  Turgenev) whom one may only appreciate after a certain age and passage of years.

On the other hand, for various different reasons, books by the following authors do not speak at all to me.

  • The family Amis
  • Saul Bellow
  • The family Bronte
  • Peter Carey
  • David Caute
  • George Eliot
  • Richard Ford
  • Graham Greene
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • Howard Jacobson
  • Thomas Keneally
  • Iris Murdoch
  • Anthony Powell
  • Marcel Proust
  • Philip Roth
  • Tom Sharpe
  • Anthony Trollope
  • PG Wodehouse
  • and many more.

For some of these authors, the issue may be a generational one:  for example, I know of no members of late Generation Jones or later-born readers who appreciate that early-Baby Boomer obsession, A Dance to the Music of Time, Powell’s long-winded novel sequence.   Added 2013-02-12:    The age threshold of my personal sample is confirmed by that of Max Hastings, writing in 2004:

Anthony Powell’s fan club, always far smaller than that of his contemporary Evelyn Waugh, will continue to shrink as admirers die off and are not replaced.  Nobody whom I know under 40 reads his books, while Waugh’s position as the greatest English novelist of the 20th century seems secure.”

Of course,  not everyone shares my low opinion of Roth’s work.