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Monitor

The battle between the Monitor and the Virginia appears with monotonous regularity in books about ships, particularly fighting ships. It was the first battle between iron ships, the first involving a ship with a turret, the first involving ships that did not rely on sail, nor even have masts as backup to the engines.

Cover of <i>Monitor</i>, the book about the boat.

Cover of Monitor, the book about the boat.

One thing this book brings home is how small it was. No great fleet action like Jutland or Lepanto or Trafalgar — it was really just a skirmish, though one with great repercussions.

deKay does a nice job of bringing these repercussions to light. They were strategic, technological and even geopolitical.

Strategic: The Confederate states needed access to weapons and materiel from Europe, and the Virginia‘s job was to break the blockade set up by the North. Hampton Roads was a vital nexus for bringing cargo from the Atlantic to inland waterways, and it was here that Virginia sallied out and caused pandemonium amongst the wooden ships. Though she was slow and hard to control, she was also impervious to their shots and could stand off and pound the Union ships into pieces. Had the Monitor not been flanged together in about 3 months and thrown into battle against the _Virginia_ almost as soon as completed, the civil was could have looked very different. Had the Confederates gained mastery of the east coast the marked superiority of the North in terms of industrial capacity would have been at least partially mitigated by better access to imports. Further, it is supposed that had the South been able to maintain this kind of sovereignty over its borders, which would promote interchange with Europe, it might have been granted diplomatic recognition by more potential trading partners. So the book pitches the one-on-one battle as a kind of ‘for want of a nail’ situation. Of course, it’s natural for an author to point out the significance of their topic — they’ve bothered to write about it after all — but there is some substance to this. Had the South been closer in stature to the North, the likelihood of a genuine fissioning of the USA would have to have been greater. We shall never know. Most likely, the war would have gone on even longer, caused even more suffering, and had the same outcome.

Technological: At a stroke, Monitor ushered in a new age in warship design. Though it low freeboard and raft-like construction limited it to coastal waters, it’s general concept — an iron hulled ship, powered by steam, dispensing with sail altogether and armed with turreted guns — was to dominate naval thinking until the rise of the aircraft carrier during WWII. Previous ironclads had looked like modified sailing ships, still arranging their guns in broadsides and still carrying a full complement of sails. Monitor must have looked like something from another world. Just as the Dreadnought reset the benchmarks in 1905, the Monitor forced a reappraisal of what made for a power navy. What value was a hundred ships of the line if a handful of ironclads could pick them off at leisure? So influential was the design of the Monitor that it leant it’s name to a style of ship. Shipyards around the world started building ‘monitors’, and would continue to turn them out for fifty years to come.

Geopolitical: It could be argued that the Monitor is the first significant example of the USA gaining technical, military leadership over Europe. It can be thought of as the very beginning of the process that led the USA to gain military and technological leadership during the 20th century. Ericsson, the man behind the Monitor, was a migrant who had been unable to sell his design in Europe. The strength of the US coming from its inclusiveness is a very modern idea, and the Monitor is an early and potent example.

Anyway, the book follows the politics and the military sides of the story. How the ship got built, how the battles were fought, and what it all meant. I would have liked more technical details — we do not even get a table summarising the capacities of the two combatants. Some more diagrams, perhaps cutaway, and clearer illustrations of how the two ships were laid out and so on, would have buttressed the work nicely and made it more rounded in its coverage. As it is, it is a nice little read.

 

Monitor.

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Quite a big deal

The Age of Napoleon by Alistair Horne.

This book does a very readable job of looking at the influence of Napoleon. The famous battles — Austerlitz, Trafalgar, Wagram and all — are mentioned but not discussed in detail. They provide context, they chart the rise and fall of his empire, but they are not the focus of the book. In many ways Bonaparte reminds more of Alexander the Great than other modern conquerors. His time in charge was brief, he founded no long-lasting, united empire. Yet his influence was enormous and did persist. His was an epoch when the work of centuries seemed to happen in years. Much of what the revolution started was finished (or at least advanced far enough to make turning back impossible) by the dictator. From the metric system to reorganisation of schools and the redesigning of Paris itself.

Paris. In many ways this is a book of two stars. Paris and Napoleon, for in this book France and Paris are synonymous. We get the occasional sentence pointing out how desperate things were in the provinces, but we never visit there. That is the only real weakness of the book (aside from some odd editing — there is considerable repetition that might have been excised). Yes, it takes us away from the political histories that focus on battles and borders and the struggle for leadership, but only as far as the salons and streets of Paris. How did Paris react to the rise and fall of Bonaparte? What monuments did he build there? How were the Prussians and the English received after the fall(s)? It’s all here — if it happened in Paris.

The book does cover the age of Napoleon in Paris. His influence on the rest of the continent is alluded to (he is credited with releasing the ‘genie of German nationalism’, thus triggering the events of the next 130 years, events that would end in another conquering dictator whose efforts ended in ignominy). Hitler is explicitly compared with Napoleon, and reasonably enough comes off poorly, since Napoleon does not seem to have engaged in genocide, slavery or rampant anti-Semitism. He did run a police state, though, and was rather keen on monumental architecture.

The book is a quick, easy read. It does a nice job of outlining the times and the man’s role in them.

Solid.

A beer review

I wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing, but I’m a bit pushed for content, so…

Furphy Refreshing Ale

With the large ‘Brewed in Geelong’ on the box, accompanied by ‘100% Victorian ingredients’, one suspects this is aiming for the VB market. The impression is confirmed by the mild, simple malty flavour, lacking in character. The simplicity of the taste is unexpected from Little Creatures Brewing. This is a good beer for cooling off after mowing the lawn, but needs to be thought of as a competitor in the more traditional (some would say boring) mainstream-style Australian lagers, despite its name. The Furphy name comes from the water tank manufacturers, based in Shepparton and known for the cylindrical water carts that have become something of an Australian and Victorian icon. This stretching for some kind of ‘old Australia’ (as if such a thing exists) cultural embedding is routine in the Australian beer industry, where it seems like every one who even thought about brewing beer in the early days of the colony has a brewery named after them. Given that ‘a furphy’ also means (essentially) a lie, or at least a tall story that is claimed to be true, I’m not sure it has ideal connotations…

The carton from Furphy refreshing ale.

Furphy Ale

Having said that, it is priced competitively with the likes of VB, Melbourne Bitter and To0heys New, so offers perfectly reasonable value if those sorts of beers are to your liking. I don’t mind admitting that I like to have a few options in the house, from interesting craft-y beers to uncomplicated malty beers like this one. A good BBQ beer.

 

Russian revolution: Hell on Earth

A People’s Tragedy by Orlando Figes.

Russia 120 years ago was, for most of its in habitants, a horrible place to live. But that’s the view from here. From inside, it was just how things were. This is the story of how that inevitability was challenged, and how it fell. The central, though hollow, figure is the Tsar. Every opportunity for compromise was rejected by a man incapable of being an autocrat. He would have made an ideal constitutional monarch, since he was an indolent vacillator, but instead he demanded absolute obedience and then failed to lead.

Great events are, I’ve often thought, like a bomb and a fuse. Even when great historical forces have created the situation where change is looming, still a fuse needs to be lit. With a firmer Tsar on the throne the revolution would still have come, but later. With a Tsar who was wise enough to compromise because he could see that the telegraph and the written word and the advances occurring elsewhere in the world meant that the old way could not survive, it may not have had to happen at all. The bomb could have been defused. Instead a decade of fighting lead to 70 years of Soviet Russia and its tens of millions of victims and eye-watering brutality. I’ve read several times, though I can’t recall where, that even Russians will admit it takes a dictator to run the country, be it the Tsar, Stalin or Putin.

The book talks about a kind of ‘darkness’ in the peasant. A will to anarchy, and an intergenerational brutality handed down by husbands to brutalised wives and children. Here’s some advice:

Hit your wife with the butt of the axe, get down and see if she’s breathing. If she is, she’s shamming and wants some more.

The more you beat the old woman, the tastier the soup will be.

Life was cheap, and the only rewards came in heaven.

This book is a remarkable achievement. Deep, wide, beginning many years before 1917 — which, though venerated, is only one part of the story — and ending with the death of Lenin, it covers society, polity, military aspects of the many struggles that went on.

The title is apt. One gets the impression the revolution was a tragedy for everybody except Stalin (who shows up quite late in proceedings). So many opportunities to relieve the suffering pass because of vested interests, pig-headedness or greed for power. That is the tragedy of all peoples throughout history; some more, some less.

The book makes a few things clear; Russia under Lenin, had he lived another 20 years, would not have been very different from Russia under Stalin. Lenin is only less reviled because he died before committing his large-scale atrocities. If Hitler had died in 1939 he’d be remembered as a flawed genius who put Germany on the road to recovery but had some pretty unfortunate policies, rather than evil personified. Lenin is the other side of the calculation. Indeed, one quote in there says something like: He did not take power to bring the revolution, he brought the revolution because it gave him a chance to take power.

At 900 pages, it’s a big book; but not a word is wasted.

Highly recommended.

 

History.

Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher: Spare me the details.

Yeah, it’s really funny. Reads very much like spoken word written down. Words fly by quickly, often ironic or mordant. It’s short, generously leaded, so probably not that many words. It’s like therapy bound into a codex and sold.

The cover of <i>Wishful Drinking</i> by Carrie Fisher.

The cover of Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher.

Fortunately, there’s not too much about Starwars, since I am over 12 years old and don’t care about it. It’s kind of sad how large it loomed in her life. It’s often struck me that being an entertainer is a funny sort of thing, from the point of view of fulfilment. Is helping people pass their time away satisfying? I guess the key thing, if you’re the reflective type, would be whether you feel that you’re enriching the viewers’ lives or just helping pass the time until the grave. But what value a laugh or a thrill? People love those movies, probably too much. What’s wrong with giving people something that they just plain really like? Nothing.

The book made me think about people with the same mental issues as Fisher but without the cushion of money or the spotlight of fame. I don’t know what’s worse, but it seems to me she could always afford and find a therapist, so maybe the money and fame might be preferable as a position to inhabit while battling demons. Also, you can write a book about it and people will read it ‘cos they’ve heard of you.

Her story certainly makes a strong case that it would be preferable to win fame after a few years in the real world, rather than spending your whole live in an unmoored bubble.

Funny. Honest. Worth the little time it takes to read it. Probably better on stage, but sadly it’s too late for that now. The self-destructive stories in the book take on a darker tone now that they’ve taken their tithe. Perhaps it’s not as funny as it would have been a little while ago…

 

Sad stories.

Bossypants by Tina Fey: A view from outside.

How many people who’ve read this book have never seen an episode of 30 Rock or SNL? Not many, I’m guessing. But I am one such. SNL has never to my knowledge been shown on free-to-air TV in Australia (and I’ve yet to see a compelling reason to pay for TV). 30 Rock has been on Aussie TV, but slid past my radar of the time.

<img class="size-medium wp-image-3387" src="https://darrengoossens.files.wordpress.com/2017/04/bossypants.jpeg?w=188" alt=""

It’s a good book. The stuff of greatest value (at least for me as a white male) outlines the biases (conscious and unconscious) that she faced moving upwards in the comedy business. I’ve seen the same prejudices in science and heard of it in so many fields, I always end up wondering how many potentially fantastic talents have been stifled, often intentionally. Sadly, a second theme, or at least undercurrent, is that these biases are overcome through patronage rather than cultural change. One enlightened individual in a position of power makes all the difference.

It’s a funny, easy read. Made me laugh out loud in a few places, and was consistently amusing and often insightful. Recommended if you like comedy or autobiographies or yellow. And it’s not a problem if her shows are not familiar, though they do feature heavily — after all, they are a big part of the setting of her story.

What sort of typewriter is that? A Lettera 32?

Can’t get far enough away:The Great Escape by Blur (An album a [[insert length of time here]])

It’s the mid 90s. Blur’s last album was Parklife. There’s a press beat-up pitting them against Oasis. The Great Escape first gets rave reviews and then there’s a backlash, some critics even repudiate their earlier laudatory comments. Blah blah blah.

Something borrowed, something blue.

 

Who cares? Let’s look at the album free of that context. It’s pretty good, but it’s not great. There are some really neat tunes on it — first ‘Country House’ and second ‘Charmless Man’, but they’re not alone. There are some songs that drag. There are quite a few that seem to shout at you between bursts of loud music-y noise. There’s one or two that are kind of touching (‘Yuko and Hiro’, ‘He Thought of Cars’) and a bunch that have a slightly judgemental, superior edge; not that some of the targets don’t earn it (‘Mr Robinson’s Quango’). It’s as if on Parklife Albarn was looking at ‘us (himself included)’ but here he’s looking at ‘them’, except it’s all too easy to be one of ‘them’ from his point of view. It’s witty, it’s tuneful, in some places it’s heartfelt, if sad or disappointed (I do like ‘The Universal’) but there’s a critical distance which gives the lyrical content a jaundiced edge and makes it an odd match for something that was so firmly categorised as pop (Well, Britpop) that it came to embody the term. It sounds like pop music, but the lyrics are not aiming to be popular. They’re not even aiming to be likeable. They are in general admirable (incisive, witty, that sort of thing), but I’m left with the impression of a librettist who’s a bit of a whiner.

Still, I’d not want to be without half a dozen of these tracks.  Knocking it back to 10 or 11 tracks might have been a good idea, keeping it a little tighter; but I suspect no two listeners would agree on which 4 or 3 tracks to cut.

 

To cut.

The incomplete Pete: Tragically, I was an only Twin by Peter Cook

Why this is subtitled ‘The Complete Peter Cook’ I don’t know. Unless it’s like an epithet, as in ‘you’re a complete twit’; I mean, Peter Cook was clearly a complete Peter Cook, but this book is not the complete Peter Cook, not even close. It admits as much itself. Anyway. If you don’t know, Peter Cook was the funniest man alive until he died, after which he became the funniest man dead, an even greater achievement. By the age of 30 he had had successful reviews in the West End and on Broadway, had starred in movies, started a nightclub and was owner of Private Eye, the satirical newspaper. By the time he was 40 we was kind of over it, and seemed to only bother to exert his still-remarkable talents when there was a point to prove or some pompous public figure to deflate. That his powers remained undimmed until his untimely, alcohol-fuelled death in 1995 is apparent. Perhaps the flood slowed to a meander, but even a cursory look (for example here, at Alan Latchley) shows that the brilliance was still there. John Cleese has come in second on lists of (Brit) ‘comedians’ comedian’ type polls, always to Cook, and he said that whereas it took he and his contemporaries six hours to produce a three minute sketch, it took Cook precisely three minutes, or so it seemed. More than one person has said he seemed to turn on a tap, tune in to some amazing stream of logical absurdity, and just let it flow.

<i>Tragically I was an Only Twin</i> by Peter Cook.

Tragically I was an Only Twin by Peter Cook.

This book samples most of the more significant corners of Cook’s career. From before Beyond the Fringe (he was writing West End shows for Kenneth Williams while still an undergraduate, sharing the writing duties with Harold Pinter and others), through the Fringe, through Not Only…  But Also… and Private Eye, on to the depths of Derek and Clive and the last flashes of genius. The book is… amusing. Very funny in a few places. Would it have been as funny were I not familiar with his work? I don’t know. I’ve heard or seen quite a few of these pieces, especially the Pete and Dud and Beyond the Fringe stuff, so I hear the words in my mind’s version of his voice. Most of what he wrote was not written to be read. Indeed, there are often no ‘standard’ written versions at all. Some of the sketches reproduced here were taken from scripts but many were transcribed, because he would improvise and invent. He got bored with fixed material and would change it every night during a run on stage, though there were ‘bits’ that tended to stay.

The book is uneven, of course, because it is a book of bits, (though not bits of a book). Often the funniest stuff is the stuff that works least well on paper. Pete and Dud in the Art Gallery needs to be seen — or at least heard. Even though there are relatively few visual gags and the sketch is essentially a conversation, the gleam in Peter’s eye as he tries to make Dudley corpse, the little smile when he says, “you didn’t spit sandwich at him, did you?” or whatever it is; only when you can see those things does the relationship really come alive and then the lines come to life. The brilliance can be seen on the page, but not fully appreciated without the video. You tube, it’s all there these days.

The Private Eye stuff I did not much like. That and Derek and Clive are probably the low points. I know Cook and Moore busted boundaries and pushed back the borders of the possible with Derek and Clive. I know some people think it’s great. I don’t. The rudeness does not bother me, but the nastiness and the lack of actual humour does. This book does a decent job of selecting the few bits of Derek and Clive that are actually (mildly) witty. It always seems to me that if an artist is going to throw off strictures, if they are not going to be bound, then they need to be better than usual. Just busting limits is not funny of itself. Shocked people might titter nervously, but a good comic is, I think, not aiming for that laugh. Broaching topics and images that have been taboo is all well and good, but that needs to be a path to something. It needs to say something that is worth saying that could not be said otherwise, or at least make a joke that could not be made otherwise. It needs to be more than ‘aren’t we shocking! Tee hee hee!’ Derek and Clive fails as comedy for the simple reason that it is not funny; there were some jokes and as I said this does a decent job of picking them out. That work was the end of Cook’s partnership with Moore. He was relentlessly nasty to Moore during the taping of the last album, and drove him away. Moore was breaking into Hollywood at that time and was soon to star in 10 and Arthur, and he never worked with Cook again, apart from bringing out some old material for Galas and the like.

The work does noticeably thin out after 1980. Cook was only in his early 40s at that stage, but decided to slow down lest he fulfil his potential. You might know him as the ‘Impressive Clergyman’ in The Princess Bride, who talks endlessly about ‘twoo wuv’, as Nigel in Supergirl (unlikely — no one likes that movie. I’ve not seen it) or … no, he’s pretty much invisible these days if you don’t go looking for him.

This book is not the place to start. But for the Cook fan it’s a nice little compendium.

 

Inessential, but funny.

An album a week (ha ha) #16: Goats Head Stew: A few nuggets amidst the gunge.

Goats Head Soup is a strange album. After what must have felt like eternity putting Exile together in Keith’s basement, who could blame the Stones for retreating to Jamaica and knocking out ten tracks pretty quickly? They were coming off one of the great runs in popular music history, four studio albums and their best live album, a dozen sides  that have a permanent pace in rock history.  And then it was job done, I reckon, ‘cos this album sure sounds like they weren’t too fussed. It’s all over the place. So much so that the only way to look at it is track by track. So here they are:

1. Dancing With Mr D
2. 100 Years Ago
3. Coming Down Again
4. Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)
5. Angie
6. Silver Train
7. Hide Your Love
8. Winter
9. Can You Hear the Music
10. Star Star

1. Dancing With Mr D

Starts with a certain slow menace, and then goes on and on and wears out its welcome. When you listen to the opener on Exile, ‘Rocks Off’, there’s just so much music and musicality in the first minute. Here there’s one or two ideas and they’re stretched out to five minutes. Hit the skip button? At least half the time.

2. 100 Years Ago

This one is like they had bits of three or four songs and just concatenated them to make one. It’s not boring. It starts off kind of jaunty and tuneful, then loses me when Mick tells me to call him ‘lazy bones’ before heading into some pretty much unconnected jam. Kind of entertaining, but not really a song as such. I like the bit about ‘bad red wine’. Hit the skip button? When I’m impatient.

3. Coming Down Again

‘Being hungry, it ain’t no crime’, Keith sings. Unless maybe you’re hungry for a hit of smack and your prioritizing of drugs over music is causing you to let your band-mates down… Having said that, he’s not singing about that kind of hunger in that song, and this is one of three pretty good slower tracks on the album. It feels like it was composed rather than flanged together. First track on the album that suggests maybe it’s not going to be a complete waste of time. Hit the skip button? Not usually.

4. Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)

Groovy funky doo doo doo doo doo etc. First track with a bit of energy, and one of only three on the whole album. A pretty solid second single, and really the only candidate. The menace here is kind of theoretical where on ‘Gimme Shelter’ or ‘Midnight Rambler’ it was actually felt, but the song comes along just in time to raise the pulse just enough to get you through the next track. Hit the skip button? Rarely if ever.

5. Angie

The big single. I read somewhere this album has sold more than 6 million copies. More than Exile, more than Beggar’s Banquet. And a big #1 hit is exactly (and solely) why. Radio play gets the sales to go beyond the fanbase. ‘Angie’ is a great tune. Not exactly fun. Nothing so far has been lyrically uplifting. Even ‘100 Years Ago’ suggests it’s sometimes wise to not grow up. But the tune is lovely and the vocals a good example of Jagger’s mannered delivery at its best. Hit skip? Rarely.

6. Silver Train

This is like lite imitation of a typical Exile track. ‘All Down the Line’ being the obvious one. The guitars honk away nicely and Jagger slurs his way through lyrics about anonymous sex, good solid Stones subject matter. Vocal hooks, a chunky tune, non-negative subject matter. One of the better ones. Hit skip? Nope.

7. Hide Your Love

I listened to this two days ago and I can hardly remember anything about it except that I was keen for it to end. This is one of (at least) three tracks that seem to have been stuck on to get the track listing up to 10 and the play time up over 40 minutes, the other two being ‘100 Years Ago’ and ‘Can You Hear the Music’. Skip? Yes.

8. Winter

This is the third tuneful, carefully-composed ballad n the album. Nice guitar work from Mick Taylor, well aimed vocal from Jagger. Cheerful? Well, it’s gonna be a long hot summer and the light of love will be burning bright, so it’s not all bad. Skip? Only if you’re after the danceable ones.

9. Can You Hear the Music

Man, what is this crap? Some kind of rehabilitated reject from Satanic Majesties? I can’t hear much music worth hearing on this track. Skip? How fast can I hit the button?

10. Star Star

The famously rude song that is called ‘Starfucker’ on bootlegs. Energy! Riffs! Humour! Good god, are we on the same album? Yes, it’s rude and kind of cheesy, but it’s also a rollicking rock ‘n’ roll song in the Chuck Berry tradition. Skip? Not usually.

So where does that leave us? Three rejects, plus ‘Mr D’ which is on the cusp, and half a dozen solid tracks, half ballads. Of these, ‘Angie’ is the only one in the Stones canon. Stacked up against the previous four albums of course it comes up short. But most albums by most acts would. Tackled 40+ years later, free of context, it’s really not bad. There are flashes of the brilliance of years before, as indeed there have been ever since. It is better than the album after it, It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, which probably has fewer dogs on it but is more consistently mediocre. Does anyone but a Stones fan ‘need’ it? (I say ‘need’ in quotes because nobody needs pop songs to live.) No, but it’s worth a listen. I’m rather a fan of Keith’s vocal efforts, and ‘Coming Down Again’ is a good one. I listen to it more than I thought I would. Well, I listen to around 65% of it, anyway.

 

Think I’m gonna get on down, oh yeah.

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane — just odd enough.

Well here’s a classic. One of those books you see in cheap anonymous editions in supermarkets and book shops. Out of copyright, low-grade editions flanged together on the cheap by various publishers you’ve never heard of. It’s famous. How’s it to read?

Cover of <i>The Red Badge of Courage</i> -- do not buy this edition!

Cover of The Red Badge of Courage — do not buy this edition!

 

Not bad.

The story is subtitled ‘an episode of the American civil war’ and it is in essence ‘young man learns lesson’. He learns how he will cope in a fight, and it’s not all good news. Shame, fear, braggadocio, boredom.

Our protagonist is mostly referred to as ‘the youth’, and the author gets close to him but dissects him dispassionately at the same time. It means that the tone of the book takes a little getting used to, but it works very well.

The story is leavened by flashes of wit and neat turns of phrase from the author.

He made a fine use of the third person.

He evidently complimented himself on the modesty of this statement.

Some in the regiment began to whoop frenziedly. Many were silent. Apparently they were trying to contemplate themselves.

He had performed his mistake in the dark, so he was still a man.

The youth’s friend had a geographical illusion concerning a stream…

The forest made a tremendous objection.

He had continued to curse, but it was now with the air of a man who was using his last box of oaths.

But I must advise no one to buy the edition illustrated above, It is one of the most carelessly put together volumes I have ever seen. Here is the contents page:

badge_bloomsbury_contents

…and I think you’ll agree it is of doubtful utility. More to the point, the book is full of typographical errors, including ‘rig2ht’ and ‘allusions’ for ‘illusions’ and the like. Most importantly, it drops two paragraphs from possibly the most crucial section of the book, such that the main character suddenly has a wound on his head and I can’t tell how. I spent a good half hour flipping through the book trying to work out when it had happened and assuming I had been distracted while reading and had not noticed; only recourse to another edition, a good one put out by a reputable publisher, was able to confirm that bits were missing.

To sum up: I can recommend this book, but not in this edition.

 

Classic.