Posts Tagged ‘Books’


Posted: June 30, 2021 in Chat
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Well, we thought we’d get this book. A bit of fun, a laugh, entertainment – entertainment is priority at the moment.So we sent off for it. It arrived the other day. It’s de-contaminated now, and so I relished the thought of opening it.

The book?
Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases.

Ok, the full title:
The Thackery T Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases
published by PanMacmillan in 2003.
Note that date – it is very important.
Especially when we get to page 182.
For those who have the book, I’ll give them time to dig it out, and find the page.

The book is in mock turn-of-20th century style, with illustrations both baroque, grotesque, and eccentric. All in black and white. Most effective, that way.

The book examines different diseases; an alphabetical examination of the bizarre.
It has, for instance, and opening at random… Buscard’s Murrain, subtitle Wormwood.
Each disease is introduced giving country of origin, then First Known Case, then Symptoms. This is followed by History, then the all-important Cures. This is then followed up by who submitted the information, Endnotes, and Cross References.

It is, as you see, all very plausible.
Buscard’s Murrain, we discover, was from ‘Slovenia (probably)’, and first noted in 1771, in Bled.
It takes up to three years before showing itself.
Dr Samuel Buscard, on examination of deceased sufferers found their brain tissue contained ‘worms’.
This was later discredited evidence – the good doctor had examined the brain tissue with a corkscrew, and made the worm-forms by accident.
And so it goes on.
Who was the entry submitted by?
Ah, here we have it. By Dr China Mieville.
Ring any bells?

Yup, the book is a complete spoof.
It was published in 2003 by NightShade Books, then by PanMacmillan in 2004. Some entries appeared in earlier iterations, for example Shelley Jackson, “The Putti’, in 1996.
This book has not been updated.
The real writers are Jeff Vandermeer (‘The Void’), and Dr Mark Roberts.

Oh, and, probably not to be read whilst eating.
Which is also a Warning that ought to be on films. We noticed this with the quantities of vomiting going on whilst we have been eating late dinners.

But what of page 182?
This is where it gets very spooky.
There is a disease here, whose subtitle is, Wangji-Cunzai or “forgetfulness-of-Being”
which is priceless in itself.

This particular disease attacks the uncovered parts of the human body, and turns those parts, eventually, to powdery snow. Which blows clean away. Cures, you see, are hard to find, due to lack of subjects. Texts on the disease were published in 1959, China.
The entry here was submitted by Dr G Eric Schaller.

It is thought to be a disease contracted through the word or text. Prohibited texts, therefore, include:
The Xiaping Annual Agricultural Report for the year 1959.
The Ticket that Exploded (Turkish version) by William S Burroughs
works from the Old Algonquin Bookstore in Denver, and

The Thackery T Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases


So what’s spooky?
The actual title of this disease.

The Wuhan Flu.

Remember: published 2003/4.

Let’s not get all conspiracy-theory, here, though.

Nothing has excited me as much as this in quite some time.
OK, it’s only a book. Relax.

Contemporary Stained Glass, by Andrew Moor. Published by Mitchell Beazley, 1989.

Note the date of publication: 1989. So it is not new; it is probably not ‘contemporary’ any more. And this hits one gripe that I have: there is a present-day-only directive to a lot of attitudes. There probably always has always been – that is, after all, how things get done, by concentrating on the immediate. In culture, though, no – and this book is proof to me: there is work here from the 1950s that is really outstanding.
Note the current price. This is such a shame – the book is a lovely work, and remains so.

Why so old – 1989? A bit of back story.
It was shortly after this date I went through a period of the worst-jobs-I–have-ever-had. One of those was working in a warehouse – but it was a book warehouse, of remaindered and damaged in production books. It was horrible. Being able to bring money in, helped, of course. And then I had access to these books. I got so desperate at times that these books became my lifeline: I accumulated them wildly. This was one.

I got down to properly looking at the book only recently. It took my breath away. The reproductions are outstanding – full colour photographs of not only publically accessible works, but also works from private collections, private houses.

Take Germany.
Straight after the War, there was little perishable art left intact. Stained glass was mostly ecclesiastical, and churches suffered from bombing, and the destruction of war.
The 1950s was a period of reconstruction – speed was of the essence. West Germany needed artists and crafts people. Stained glass took off, it bridged art and crafts. What was possible in the field was unrestricted. The book comments that although German stained glass work was extensive, not all was particularly good.
But the good was stupendous.

Take for instance, the work of Ludwig Schaffrath:

His design for the Aachen bank, 1986, for four arched windows is outstanding.

Then go and explore –
Johannes Schreiter:

Jochem Poensgen:

First of all stained glass need not be full-colour. Minimalist design and palates were experimented with, as here: a rectilinear, two-tone work.

The medium is glass.
But glass can be Antique Glass – that is:
Reamy (danziger/water glass)
Flashed (simple opak, opalescent or opal)

It can be machine rolled glass:
Cathedral glass (tinted, and clear)
Clear patterned (ribbed)
American opalescent (Tiffany)
It can be Bevelled, or Cast glass.

Plain glass was created from a relatively new technique. This was the cheapest to make, and is what constitutes large shop and apartment windows.
The book gives examples of each of these.

It then goes on to describe the techniques used in presenting the glass: use of black iron-oxide and borax paint that is fired to produce stains. Or with designs scraped in it.

Etching, capable of great subtlety of effect, is an old technique, but also time consuming.

Flashing is a relatively new technique using high temperatures, but produces a stained effect that is capable of fine tones.

The use of leading developed a form of its own in the works of Johannes Schreiver, above.

From an historical angle, we saw a boom in stained glass use and development in domestic use of glass in Victorian England.
One particular innovator was Frank Lloyd Wright, in America. His use of, again, domestic stained glass was a very promising avenue. It did not turn off to a highway, unfortunately.
PreWar in Europe, the Dutch De Stijl and German Bauhaus groups explored stained glass use.

Not all stained glass need be full colour, as I commented above. One design approach has been the use of black and white (ie plain, clear glass), with touches of colour. We can see an example in the Jochem Poensgen, above. Other approaches to use of the medium involve rectilinear designs, use of pattern, use of ‘float glass.’
Naturally the artists mix their techniques, to great effect. Figurative techniques lead to use of glass as a canvas for paint and stain techniques.

Narcissus Quagliata continues to produce wonderful work. Take, for example, this commissioned work:


The motif in the top right panel, was made for him by Venetian glass makers, and proved very intricate, and expensive.

The book gives us glimpses of work produced in America, Canada, UK, New Zealand, for commissions all around the world.



Stained glass enhances an inner environment. What about the outer prospect?
Anyone viewing a wonderful stained glass window from the outside is usually very disappointed.
Ludwig Schaffrath took this on, and produced work that has both inner and outer effectiveness. Their effects are necessarily altered by the source of light, and by the demands of technique. The outer effect cannot reproduce the inner effect, and so each view point has its own viability.

The development and exploration of the uses of stained glass continues. Glass screens were developed, and backlit panels.
As always, art vies fruitfully with decorative function.

We see above examples of high art, of decoration, of functional, and of exploratory works.

Reposted from 2014 – because I think it’s a good ‘un.

ROADSIDE PICNIC, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Published by Gollancz Sciene Fiction, 1977

CAUTION Contains Spoilers!


For such a short book this is extraordinarily provocative.
Published in the Soviet Union by two technical and science professionals, the novel keeps close to the real world. And this allows any deviation to appear even more devastating.
The book gives us a number of accounts over a period of time, of an event that happened in the recent past.
Style-wise we hear ‘70’s gritty Americana, full of dime-store fiction traits, and reeling with unregenerated gender mine-fields. The setting of the book is in fact i’n undisclosed areas.

The basic premise is given early on, and we learn the details and consequences as the different narratives develop.
Twenty year’s previously the Earth was visited by an alien race. It seemed to happen on a sudden and be over before anyone realised.
The opening narrator is a Nobel Prize winning scientist, whose work revealed the origin of the Visitation to have been in the region of Cygnus. Coming in on the earth’s transit the Visitors landed in an arc of six separate places across the surface of the earth.
What was discovered in these places afterwards was so anomalous and dangerous that these landing places had to be fenced off, isolated: people had to be protected from them. The Zones were the site of strange artefacts, substances, occurrences.

Local people not caught in the original Visit became ensnared in a fascination for the Zone. Stalkers would enter in secret , learn safe pathways, where the danger areas were, and bring out objects. Red Schuhart was one of these. Stalking was punishable by imprisonment, but it was a compulsion. The objects retrieved developed their own black market system, because some, like the batteries that never ran out, showed great potential.  But there were also spillages: ditches full of ‘witches  jelly’ which we later learn was colloidal gas – no matter what the name, its effect on the human body was devastating.

Stalkers developed their own terminology for what they came across in the Zone: ‘witches jelly’, ‘so-so’s’, ‘mosquito mange’, ‘black sprays’.
Scientific Institutes provided a legitimate outlet for interest in the Zones. Red took a post at the Institute. His boss was a Russian, Kirill, the only one Red could respect and admire. Kirill’s motives were purely scientific, but he was careful, knew how to play the game with the authorities, and yet retain his integrity.
They were working with ‘empties’, until  Red mentioned he knew where there were some ‘full empties’. What were these? No one knew – the Zones contained areas of a completely unknown kind of physics. ‘Empties’ were like glass jars, with metal top and bottom – only the glass, or whatever was the container material was not visible or accessible to analysis: two metal discs held in an unbreakable relationship; but Red had seen them contain blue material in between.

In one of the witty concepts of the book they gained a license to enter the Zone, and used the ‘flying boot’, a kind of hover car. The ‘full empties’ were obtained, and Red was paid handsomely, but the consequences were severe: a moment’s lapse of concentration led to disaster. And guilt. Money, guilt and a mind increasingly disordered by Stalking in the Zone, left Red to count the continual cost.

What was the Visitation? At one point Red runs through the possibilities – was it a statement of intent by an alien race, of contact? Will they come again? It was certainly an indication that we are not alone in the universe, and that there were other intelligent beings out there. That they had an interest in us.
Later he wondered with a jolt – was it the beginning of an invasion? A slow seep of poisonous ideas and materials into our ordered world?
Or was it, as someone else said, just a roadside picnic site – that they never even knew or cared we were there? That all these objects, anomalies left behind, were just the garbage and refuse of lazy, loutish picnic-ers?

All this alien technology threw our own scientific knowledge and certainties into the waste bin. And along with them our ideas and hopes of progress. Our own civilisations can be seen to be no more that errors, blips, on the universe.

On a political level, the book, written in the coldest parts of the Cold War, gives us the greatest achievements of two civilisations: the American, and the Soviet. If these are only roadside picnic spots, then in the way the alien science throws all earth’s discoveries in physics, chemistry, all the hard sciences, out of the window, we glimpse a metaphor for the wanton waste and failure of those two huge political systems.
In the way these greatly more advanced species act, we see the concepts of morals and ethics, of diplomacy, of value, of all we hold most dear, thrown into question. Advancement in the sciences need not equate with advancement in behavioural attitudes. If that is so, then what is this term ‘advancement’?

And we begin to see the ecological impact implicit in this – a mirror of our own impact on the earth. The spill-off materials altered the soil, composition and environment, of the Zones in unpredictable and unimaginable ways.
It was found that the children of Stalkers were different; there was no detectable radiation in the Zones, but things were beginning to happen. Red’s own daughter changed – she was born with a hair covering, but a child despite that. In time she became less human, but not some other species. One night Red’s father appeared; he had died years before the Visit. ‘They aren’t people’, scientists declared. ‘We call them moulages’ they were the bones of the dead, and flesh material had gathered around them again. They walked, ate, breathed. What were they?
Like Red’s daughter they were not human, nor an alien species, but existed in some form, in some definition.

And the denouement was a final trek into the Zone for the fabled Golden Ball.
It granted wishes, the legends said. As Red made the perilous journey it was to be a journey into the self: they will not be any old wishes it grants, they will the deepest wishes, the deepest most unknowable of the heart’s desires. He was the last of the real Stalkers – only he now had the nous, the  knowledge, for a protracted, perilous journey through the Zone.

All along, with the terrible price he was willing to pay, he had to prove he was worth this, that he was fundamentally a ‘good’ man – even with his petty, lowdown history, with the last ultimate deed that he was prepared to allowed happen, he had to be fundamentally ‘good’, ‘honest’, one of the few, the book reveals, of the surrounding sharks, gangsters, and abusers of the community around the Zone.

The book leaves us with this.
We now realise he never intended to come back; his last act was to be one of sacrifice for the sacrifice he committed in order to gain access to the greater good.

Was that a wish to wipe away the Zones altogether, as if they had never happened? Was ignorance preferable? Or did he wish something else?

Theodore Sturgeon, in his Introduction, writes of the book’s ‘deft handling of loyalty and greed, of friendship and love, of despair and frustration and loneliness…’. Another angle of the book is that between the ideal, the desired, and reality. The book opens with Doctor Valentine Pilman trying to deflect the interviewer from pinning him down as the originator of the Visitor-origin area: it was not so straight-forward or simple, a boy came up with the idea, but he himself got the Prize.
Throughout we see the desired life, rewards, and then the reality at odds with these. At the end we see the Golden Ball –… only then Redrick looked up at the ball. Carefully. With caution. With a sudden fear that it would turn out wrong – that it would disappoint him… it was not golden, it was more a copper colour…’.

The influences of the book can be seen in Tarkovsky’s film ‘Stalker’, based on the Red’s character.


The witch’s jelly/colloidal gas’s effects can be seen in the the ‘mineral acid’ blood of the aliens in the film Alien . The Zones uncannily reflects Chernobyl’s own devastated zone.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky:


The Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi in Early Modern Europe, by Richard Scholar, Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 9780199274406

Richard Scholar is Fellow and Tutor in French, at Oriel College, Oxford.

The Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi in Early Modern Europe : Richard ...

In the realm of Philosophy ours has been called the age of the method. That is, method as the chosen vehicle with which we locate and explore our understanding of our position in the world.

What is the je ne sais quois? It is the inexpressible, the ‘I do not know what’ of a situation, event, and even, as Richard Scholar shows with Montaigne, of a relationship. Or, if you prefer, it is the ‘I know not what.’ In English there is the phrase he uses as subtitle of the book: a certain something – The Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi – Encounters with a Certain Something. This phrase pales against the French, though.

How can we know the je ne sais quoi? We can hunt out its provenance… this, after all, is accepted method. The phrase can be traced back to origins in the Cicero’s example of his use of the expression nescio quid: I do not know what. Richard Scholar qualifies, however: It owns its literary prestige partly to its Latin ancestor and its Romance cousins, but, unlike them, it goes on to establish itself as a vogue-word and an organising topic. (Page 25)

And there we have the tone and tenor of the book. We can trace the literary prestige of the phrase more easily than the vernacular usage. How prevalent was the phrase in ordinary/everyday usage? We would need to see how and if it was used in each and every instance in context, time, speech, manuscript, and print. And so he restricts his search to early modern Europe, examining its use in Montaigne, Corneille, Moliere, Descartes, Pascal, even Shakespeare.

Take those Englishings, above: the ‘I do not know what…’, and the ‘I know not what.’ The second is more succinct, comfortable; is more self-contained-seeming through its use of form. To our ears it has a sound-bite quality to it. The first seems more exploratory, more open, questing. The first expresses a vulnerability towards knowledge, self-knowledge – therefore a vulnerability before a greater, omniscient knowledge. In this way can we extrapolate therefore, a more theistic quality to it, whereas the latter has a more renaissance quality: more au-fait with classical rhetorical forms?
For me this gets to the heart of the question. I use the phrase ‘sound-bite’ etc – it is a contemporary journalistic phrase. Hopefully it will not be known in ten year’s time, as it was not say, twenty years’ ago. It limits. My worry is: do we limit our thinking to what we can only express in words, language? That would be a grievous error. I posit thought as experienced event, full of multiplying connections, and not as ordered and expressible formulation of the event.

Read the excerpt I gave above again; take, for instance, the need of the super-defining Latin writers of the phrase, nescio quid. Something even escapes their forensic practice. In fact, quite a lot did, And this is the fate of so much of our, Europe’s, early heritage, circumscribed by Latin thought, expression, and the vicissitudes of transmission.

In the sixteenth century France, Richard Scholar comments, the phrase became vogue; as with the later vogue for conversatione (see Peter Burke, The Art of Conversation, Cornell University paperbacks,1993:
it spread throughout Western Europe. It changed costume, definition, commercial value, as it crossed cultures.

David M Possner, Chicago University:, writes: The first part of the book presents itself as a word history: using Starobinski’s notion of the tripartite life cycle of a word — from its emergence as a lexical entity, through a period of currency, to its demise in what Merleau-Ponty calls sedimentation….

And so we have the burgeoning of the great dictionaries at the turn of the seventeenth century. The phrase cannot be so restricted, we find: it retains its ability to disturb, disrupt, by remaining indefinable. And so ‘society’ fights back. We have what is called a parlour game of polite conversation, where the new philosophical writing becomes a polite topic. The game is of nescioquiddity, of applying the phrase to ‘cultured’ phenomena, the world of gentility.

The move from ‘I know not what’, to ‘a certain something’ is a very definite, provocative one. Kant and the Age of Reason are taken wholesale, you might say, and produce their own particular paradigms for conceptualising the essence of the relationship of self and the world.

The phrase throws into relief our relationship with knowledge of the world, of self knowledge, and the relationship between: our basic epistemology.

With this book, and his next, Montaigne and the Art of Free-Thinking (Past in the Present):
Scholar enrolled himself in the realm of histoire des mentalites,
of cultural history’s  investigations.

Harold Nicholson, The Congress of Vienna. 1948

I’ve had this book for years; it was bought second-hand, when there were second-hand book shops, before the charity shops took on books and drove them out, and then Amazon sent them spinning into oblivion.
It’s a hard back; as I read the pages were still squeezed together – maybe it had never actually been read or even opened fully.

The Congress of Vienna was a favourite topic of mine when I was studying International Relations. And Harold Nicholson was a writer I respected, based on his earlier study of diplomacy .

Even so, as I read this book over November and December 2016 (one of my bed-time reads), it really brought home the extent of the huge shake-up, the major disruption to Europe as a whole, that Napoleon’s careering around the continent and beyond had created.

This disruption of nation, national territory, identity, continued up-till and after the Second World War: 130+ years.
We read here of the tragic fate of Poland under Napoleon, and then Tsar Alexander  1;  of the machinations behind the establishing of Prussia as a major force in central Europe; we learn the reality/meaning, of the extent of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
This latter is so ably expressed in the novels of Joseph Roth, his Radetzky March in particular, and the lovely novels of Stefan Zweig; or, say, Journey by Moonlight, by Antal Szerb.

Harold Nicholson, in his 1948 book, The Congress of Vienna,wrote:

Nobody who has not actually watched statesmen dealing with each other can have any real idea of the immense part played in human affairs by such unavowable and often unrecognizable causes as lassitude, affability, personal affection or dislike, misunderstanding, deafness  or incomplete command of a foreign language, vanity, social engagements, interruptions and momentary states of health.

All these are conclusions drawn from events, observations, reports, letters. Nothing is made up.

Left field events in a novel I have always relished: the unexpected, something leaking in from a larger pattern, tie-ing the micro to the macro. The relativism that gives lives meaning.

And yet this excerpt above seems to suggest the opposite of a pattern? These notes by Harold Nicholson plot out how decisions skew, and how such skews are then accommodated, and produce the end result’s wobbling, teetering edifice. Time factor also comes in: this or that was meant as a stop-gap, and yet to alter it afterwards would be to endanger the whole. And so it remains.
And how the ad-hoc has more to say than the rationalised and reasoned. Decisions were made whilst fighting with the major and minor shifting, and conflicting, demands of others.
At an early point in the Congress, three major leaders had painfully thrashed out the basis for reasoned discussion of the whole Congress. Then  France’s new representative, Talleyrand, arrived. He quickly but expertly threw all into disarray simply by questioning the bases of their concepts: against who? France is no longer a threat; then who are the agreements being put up to contain?.

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord:

What fascinates are the courage and psychology of these people: to walk in among the major powers, leaders, kings, emperors, and still hold one’s own. To hold one’s nerve, and one’s sanity.
Englands’ Castlereagh came home broken, and committed suicide some time afterwards.
Shelley may have hated him, but on a positive note he did insist on the Congress tackling the topic of Slavery.
He was very disparaging about the fate and status of Italy.
But then, everyone was about the Spanish representative, Marquis Pedro Gomez de Labrador, and tended to leave him out of everything.
Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh:


We can read in this the politics both real and imaginary that have so drawn people: The Game of Thrones is here, maybe most of the conflicts we see around us.


Posted: July 3, 2016 in Chat
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