The Brown Wedge

Jan 05


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“I loathe people who keep dogs. They are cowards who haven’t got the guts to bite people themselves” ? dave q August Strindberg (1849-1912), Swedish vagabond (?) playwright

haha sometimes i totally heart fact-checking by google

The Politics Of The Future II:

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The Politics Of The Future II: From ultra-market, to communism: China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh. Written in the eighties, when the idea of China’s economic plan was only just taking shape, a world dominated by China’s communism was plausible only really in a militaristic sense. McHugh, whose book is set two hundred years into such a future, is much more interested in the cracks in her system than the system overall. Hers is a economically free, but ideologically straight-jacketed future, where the US has been conquered in a very violent war (rendering much of in uninhabitable) and has been communist for quite some time. However this is a communism of favours, of massive racism (only true Chinese will ever amount to anything) and as an extrapolation of China is probably more plausible than it was in the eighties.

This is a loosely connected jumble of short stories either about the titular character (New York born Chinese) or people he occasionally interacts with. For such a loosely structured book, the world created is very well integrated. The science is again not the point, though some great ideas about architecture do come out of it. But what is most impressive is the deft prose which bolsters a lot of these bitter-sweet stories which end up generally being about love and life, and not so much about a 23rd century communist world (despite a rather sophisticated grasp of politics demonstrated in the final chapter).

Jan 05


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by Martin Gardner

For many years, I was a subscriber to the Skeptical Inquirer, the quite marvelous journal dedicated to a basic principle: treat any claim involving the paranormal with scientific rigor and report about it. Admittedly that wasn’t the whole story with SI, which is as much a chance for there to be reports on recent news involving such claims, studies of past incidents in history and in recent years wider debates over questions of science, religion and society in general. I like it very much still but I let it lapse without much in the way of concern from me, not because I’ve suddenly turned New Age or Fox Mulder — frankly I’d just as soon say I’ve accepted George W. Bush as my personal saviour — but because, in some respects, it had served its purpose for me. Back in the mid-eighties, when I first read about those who deceive themselves or others about their many abilities, and eagerly devoured books by authors like James Randi regarding exposures of charlatans — not to mention learning that two of my early writing heroes Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov were deeply involved with the group behind SI, CSICOP — subscribing to SI after a time was a no-brainer. Now, though, I think that dipping into the occasional story here and there would suffice for me — needing further reinforcement that the amount of BS out there piles higher than can be imagined is not needed for me now.

These thoughts came to mind while reading the UCI library copy of Urantia, written by longtime SI and Scientific American stalwart Martin Gardner, whose many essays were informative and often very enjoyable reflections on shenanigans and charlatans and oddities in many spheres. But I think, frankly, that a full-length book was a step too far. Mind you, studying the extremely odd Seventh-Day Adventist spinoff the Urantia Foundation is well worthy — the story of how a disillusioned follower of that earlier movement oversaw — if not created — an at-times surreal blend of conventional Christianity, scientific supposition and science fiction is as classic an ‘American’ story as that of Joseph Smith, say, though thankfully with much less bloodshed. But Gardner shouldn’t have been the one to write such a story, though his research is incredibly thorough, detailing as much as can be known about the creation of ‘the Urantia Papers,’ the biases, willful idiocies and plagiarisms that went into its creation, the rebellions and infighting that recurred since the movement coalesced in the 1930s.

But the book is poorly organized, leaping backwards and forwards in time with little rhyme or reason, spending moments to deliver snarky digression and insult on top of snarky digression and insult, changing tone sometimes in the middle of a paragraph or even a sentence. I don’t blame him for his sheer annoyance and laughing attitude to much of what he encounters, I’d feel the same way even if I didn’t always express it as such — ultimately the wonders of the scientific world appeal to me more as they are than having to be interpreted through a ‘revealed’ text. But I slogged through the text rather than skipped through it, wished there had been an editor or a cowriter, found myself simultaneously informed about a curious belief I had wondered about and wondering at the rationale for such an often stultifying text on Gardner’s part.

Had I just been starting to investigate this line of approach, I would have probably liked it more or reacted more positively — but as it stands it was the effort of a cranky old man, better and more briefly summarized at this much shorter webpage. So read that instead.

(This post continues over in Proven by Science.)

Jan 05

Adventures In The Alaskan Skin Trade by John Hawkes

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Adventures In The Alaskan Skin Trade by John Hawkes

Hawkes had been on my mental list for a while, since he seemed to be grouped with some Postmodernist writers I love – there are blurbs on the back of this from Barth, Gass and Barthelme, rather confirming that – but I’d not got around to him until now. Oddly, what I liked best about this seemed to have very little to do with Postmodernism.

In the ’60s, Sunny is running a brothel in an Alaskan town, but most of this is flashbacks to the ’30s, when she was a kid, and her dad was a big, colourful character, brave and adventurous and very upright. I kept expecting the yarns to get more over the top, less real, but they stay just about within reasonable bounds, lively and big without being really fantastic. The central characters are memorable ones, but there didn’t seem anything in this that qualifies it as PoMo, really.

The reason I loved it and will look for more by Hawkes is the prose – this is something that many of the best American PoMo writers are pretty ordinary in (I mean, I love Barth and there is intelligence in every sentence he writes, but he’s not a great stylist). Hawkes isn’t a beautiful, flowery, lyrical writer with extraordinary metaphors, like my other big favourite prose stylists (Updike, Harrison). With him it’s about rhythm – his prose sings and bounces like no other I’ve come across. Listen to this opening: “Where are you, Dad? To the north. To the west. To the far north and the receding west. Where the seas are black and the fish dead. Where the rivers flow and the mountains rise. Where the fog drifts and the rain falls…” No unusual images, all plain language, but it reads like very good poetry. This could have been about anything at all, and it would still have been an absolute joy to read. A writer like this surely can only have produced excellent books, and I’ll read them all.

Sad tale

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Sad tale: I am sure that many of the comics creators I grew up reading are now poor as a church mouse, but unlike most of them Messner-Loebs was actually very good, and read as likeable as this story makes him seem. Strong characters, quirky and surprising plotting, intelligent all-ages writing – exactly the kind of things the mainstream needs I’d say. Loebs’ problem I think is that he never really was comfortable with the kind of blockbuster action storylines that shift comics: his work has always been quite low key.

That said one of his issues of Flash is probably my favourite ever ‘trad’ superhero issue. It’s #53, “Nobody Dies”, published in about 1990. Flash – who has super-speed powers – is on a passenger plane, in civvies. He flirts with a pretty but nervous stewardess and jokes that his job is making sure nobody dies. There is an attempted hijack (I’m a bit hazy on the details here) which Flash foils, but the cabin is briefly depressurised and the stewardess is sucked out of a door. Flash, being a superhero, jumps after her. The rest of the comic is him working out how to use his powers to keep him and the girl alive and get down to the ground. It doesn’t have a costumed villain, it doesn’t have complex plotting, it doesn’t have very much violence. It takes an issue to tell a story – ‘hero rescues somebody’ – that readers take for granted. But it has a strong premise, follows it through, keeps the suspense up to the end, and winds up as a character piece that lets a reader know exactly what Flash does and why he does it. If I had a kid this is one of the first comics I’d give them. Best of luck, Messner-Loebs.

Jan 05

The Key 20th C Artists, as proven by science

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The Key 20th C Artists, as proven by science

So I have this Phaidon book, The 20th Century Artbook. It has one page each, a reproduction and brief text, on 500 20th C artists. Each entry also has 3-6 other artists from the book mentioned as links – some are similar or associated in some way, some influences on or influenced by, whatever. But who gets the most mentions (I saw a recent ranking of universities by citations in learned journals, which perhaps inspired this)? Well, 95% of the 500 artists get at least one link mention – there is a lot of reciprocity – but some winners emerge. The top two were predictable, but Pollock #3 and Rothko at =5th may indicate some American bias, and I think they overvalue the glossy surrealists – Dali, De Chirico, Magritte and Tanguy are high up, Klee (only 6!), Miro (5) and Ernst (4) way behind.

1. (30 link mentions) Pablo Picasso
2. (23) Henri Matisse
3. (21) Jackson Pollock
4. (20) Wassily Kandinsky
5= (17) Salvador Dali, Piet Mondrian, Mark Rothko
8= (16) Constantin Brancusi, Marcel Duchamp (below Dali!)
10= (15) Sol Lewitt
11= (14) Georges Braque, Giorgio De Chirico, Willem De Kooning
14= (13) Joseph Beuys, Donald Judd, Rene Magritte, Amedeo Modigliani
18= (12) Carl Andre, Hermann Nitsch (first I’d barely heard of – have I neglected performance art, I wonder?)
20= (11) Pierre Bonnard, Paul Cezanne (dying early in the century maybe didn’t help his score), Gina Pane (highest woman, and see Nitsch comment above), Robert Ryman, Yves Tanguy, Andy Warhol
26= (10) George Grosz, Edward Hopper, Elie Nadelman, Ben Nicholson (4 ahead of his wife!), Auguste Rodin, Helene Schjerfbeck, David Smith
33= (9) Umberto Boccioni, Andre Derain, Jean Fautrier, Paul Gauguin, Adolph Gottlieb, Mona Hatoum, David Hockney, Henri Laurens, Fernand Leger, Franz Marc, Edvard Munch, Bruce Naumann, Kiki Smith, Daniel Spoerri, Bill Viola, Mark Wallinger
50= (8) Judith Barry, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Anthony Caro, Robert Delaunay (Sonia on 2), Raoul Dufy, Richard Estes, Dan Flavin, Juan Gonzalez, Erich Heckel, Eva Hesse, On Kawara, Barbara Kruger, Richard Long, Aristide Maillol, Kasimir Malevich (far too low), Mario Merz, Emil Nolde, Eduardo Paolozzi, Mimmo Rotella, Robert Smithson, Ben Vautrier

Some who seem very underscored to me: on 7 are Giacometti, Henry Moore (sculpture doesn’t do too well here), Jasper Johns, Barnett Newman and Robert Rauschenberg (that far behind Pollock and Rothko?); on 6 are Calder, Hepworth, Agnes Martin (sorry Anthony!) and Monet; on 5 Man Ray, Schwitters and Sherman; on 4 Jean Arp, Gabo, Rae 4 (okay, this is certainly enough, but she’s a big favourite of mine); on 3 Chicago, Christo and Renoir; on 2 Feininger and Ruscha; and Cy Twombly just gets the one mention.

The Politics Of The Future I:

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The Politics Of The Future I: Science fiction is often not THAT speculative about science. Postulating future politics is almost as much fun. Perhaps for satirical effect, or for plot reasons, or just for fun: mooting a future society does mean getting idea of its political infrastructure. Over Christmas I read four books which all rest strongly on their political dimension. Interesting two were ultra-capitalist, two were communist.

The most crude of the bunch was Jennifer Government by Max Barry, which is the No Logo future. Or the Logo future. Basically it stretches the idea that corporations will be running the world, or at least more obviously running the world. A very simplistic extrapolation, the book is basically a rollocking adventure with added (bloody obvious) satire. For example, the title comes from the fact that people take the name of the company they work for as their surname. The book manages to find this unworkable in though it can manipulate it. The book however is well aware of its lack of depth, in it one of the characters reads The Space Merchants, and criticises that for exactly what you would criticise Jennifer Government. The Space Merchants imagines a world dominated by advertising. JG is based on corporate skull-duggery. There may be hubris involved however in suggesting it is better than Pohl & Kornbluth’s book. It is a fast, fun read however, albeit relying on the most outrageous coincidences for resolution.

Jan 05

Joe Sacco watch your back.

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Joe Sacco watch your back. After allowing an admittedly sluggish time for your Sacco’s graphic novel journalism of Palestine to be diseminated, the Israeli’s strike back with HOMELAND: THE ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF THE STATE OF ISRAEL.

And who better to write this story 4000 years in the making than Marv Wolfman, 1980’s fan favourite writer of the Teen Titans and Crisis On Infinite Earths.

(Cue dodgy Jericho gag here*.)

Gasp as David slays the forces of G.O.L.I.A.T.H., swoon as Moses uses his telekinesis to hold back the Red Sea and be puzzled that you don’t remember the Anti-Monitor’s role in the 1967 war.

*Cue explaination of this here. Jericho was a member of the Teen Titans whose powers were, I believe, not being able to talk and having really silly hair. You may find out far too much about him here. But not really why he is called Jericho.

Jan 05


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i. treble turner prizes all round
ii. i spose to be on top of the FACTS i shd actually read everything written by and abt GG’s involvement and exit: from a semi-distance (ie i only watched the tv bits) i deduce that (cash aside) she entered to defeat BB at his own game; realised it wz a tougher nut to crack (for reasons she shd have known if she’d watched it properly previously); started a revolt but cracked herself (dr vick – not a fan or a watcher – pointed out that when GG said “squalid” she didn’t mean “morally squalid” she meant actually not hygenically clean = very extremely demoralising to the super-fastidious); left, and took the game to worlds she better understands and has more control of in (ie WRITING for the PAPERS): i do admire GG’s revolt, and her admission of weakness and error, and (as ever) her refusal to firewall the personal off from the political (plus also these were all “good TV”), but flight into territories she knows better is retreat-by-any-other-name, and victories she may seem to win there will not count as defeats for BB *unless* she also takes on the ACTUAL REAL BIG BROTHERS to tirelessly and capriciously operate – much less “visibly”, and rarely publicly challenged – in the grown-up media. (This will continue to apply if she takes it even further onto her own ground viz ACADEMIA.)
iii. I reread Ben Thompson’s book on 90s TV comedy, Sunshine on Putty, last week also: of course it’s perceptive all round, but particuarly good on the ambiguities and potential of CBB (= thx BT for givin my book a nice review at xmas) (=old pals network alert) (some highlights from email updates re CBB5: “I completely agree with you about Mr M’s punkdom (…) it’s very much of the Sid Vicious variety isn’t it, in the way that his self-esteem seems to be so intimately bound up with his capacity to make people loathe him. When he’d prompted someone to say something really vile back there was always a look of such intense delight on his face” and “I did think Jackie’s assault on the ever more morally reprehensible Davina (who the tv guy in the saturday telegraph in a rare moment of acuity called ‘tyranny’s figleaf’) when the latter was trying to present BB’s putting La Stallone into the house as a benevolent act (“You didn’t want to bring me and Brigitte back together, you wanted us to rip each other’s heads off, and because that didn’t happen now you’re looking for another story”) was one of the most astute pieces of criticism to which the endemolians (copyright G Greer) have ever been subject.”)
iii. “the bez” (ie the concept not the person) turns out to be the bez!! kenzie = the xander (which by BB iron law = whoever comes second): his anguished howl, dressed as an egg in the diary room, that he will never be able to perform with Screwface again, is a kind of fast-forward reverse panto effect: whereas the cliche dynamic = “difficult art” (= i guess grime in this case) is in the end “recuperated” into light enterainment, here one of its young stars is given anguished presentiment of same and all the time in his life to respond
Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello.
Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha.
You never listen to a word that I said
You only seen me
For the clothes that I wear
Or did the interest go so much deeper?
It must have been
The colour of my hair

What you wanted was never made clear
Behind the image was ignorance and fear
You hide behind his public machine
Still follow the same old scheme

Two sides to every story
Somebody had to stop me
I’m not the same as when I began
I will not be treated as property

Public Image you got what you wanted
The Public Image belongs to me
It’s my entrance
My own creation
My grand finale
My goodbye
*strange growling noise*

*(it may not be the fifth, i lost count)

Jan 05

Down By The River Where The Dead Men Go by George P. Pelecanos

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I can’t remember who it was who recommended Pelecanos to me, but I had the impression he was well worth a try, that he might just be someone to join my other big favourite current crime writers. This is pretty good, but nothing has really made me desperate to read more by him.

It’s very Lawrence Block in style – we have an alcaholic occasional P.I., getting dragged into things more than commissioned. It has his sometime gritty realism, a convincing grasp of low-life people and their world (here set in D.C.), and some of his qualities. The lead character is a pretty substantial creation, and a few others are pretty good too, and the writing is a good notch above solid. The climactic sections are pretty lively, though standard enough fare. There’s nothing really wrong with this, but there wasn’t anything that seemed to match Block’s freshness and complexity and wit; nothing to match James Lee Burke’s atmospheric and beautiful descriptive prose; nothing to match Andrew Vachss’s compelling vision of a sub-underworld. I may read him again, but I can’t say I’ll be particularly looking for him.