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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.

Keith’s Life: What to trust?

First, I have to point out this: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/low_concept/2010/11/please_allow_me_to_correct_a_few_things.html.

Brilliant and mostly spot on.

Keith Richards is of course famous. He’s been playing geetar in some band since Moses was a boy and apparently the NME voted him ‘most likely to die in the next year’ ten times in a row in the 70s. But he’s still alive. The Stones just knocked out one of their better albums of the last [[insert preferred value here]] years, Blue and Lonesome which, tellingly, is all covers; they’ve still got their chops as players, but they (Keith and Mick) aren’t writing great tunes so often. Well, they did plenty way back when and they can’t all be gems. As long as Charlie is drumming there’s something worth hearing on a Stones record.

Speaking about way back when: Life is Keith’s ghosted autobiography, put together by James Fox from many hours of recorded interviews. It’s very thick. About 550 pages. If you like thick books about rock stars, it’s got you covered. It made a bit of a splash on release ‘cos Keith says lots of rude things about Mick Jagger. Well, you know, Keith wanted to sell copies, didn’t he? But in a sense those things are very telling. They put me on alert as a reader. Immediately I wonder; how much of the negative stuff he says is true? The shots about the size of Jagger’s cock are cheap, juvenile and the kind of thing designed to stir up tabloid press interest (and stir up Mick), none of which requires them to be true. Pete Townshend says the comments are wrong, anyway. So I’m wondering; if Keith is prepared to say pretty much anything to make a stir, what else in the book is unreliable? The whole thing is tarnished.

Take another little example, trivial of itself. He critiques Jagger’s (pretty terrible) solo output. She’s The Boss, Primitive Cool, Goddess in the Doorway, yeah, they’re all pretty dire attempts are hooking into the current fashion. But he strategically leaves out Wandering Spirit, easily Jagger’s best solo outing. Why? Probably ‘cos it’s the only one that isn’t disappointing. So he just omits it. Little bits of manipulation, when they come to your attention, they cast doubt on everything else, on much bigger and more interesting topics.

There is a sense of unreality about the whole book, despite the level of detail. Oh, much of it is most likely true, and when Keith talks about the music he loves or some of the intricacies of guitar tuning, or making bangers and mash, he’s genuinely affecting. So the bullshit becomes all the more disappointing.

He threatened Billy Preston with a knife when he was playing too loudly, he threatened a record exec with a knife when he dared make suggestions in a mixing booth, he shot this with a gun, that with a gun, took this, swallowed that, nearly died when this happened, nearly died when that happened… it’s probably all true, but I’m always thinking as I read: “Is this what happened, or is this designed to gild the Richards legend?” Keith is cool enough without all the dodgy claims.

And that is the core of the problem I have with the book. I don’t know if I can trust it, so I wonder why I am reading it. I mean, the incidents are entertaining and well told, but I’d like to know if it’s fact or fiction. He’s probably never cleaned his own kitchen or put a load of washing in the machine (I’m jealous). He’s never lived in the real world since he was 20, and he’s not starting to with this book.

The other problem is Keith himself. I don’t want a book full of agonising over what might have been/should have been/how he hurt people and so on (that’s Who I Am, by Pete Townshend), but a little admission that maybe he spent a lot of his life being pretty unhelpful (to put it in very mild terms) would have leant a little more reality to the proceedings.  He points out that while he was on heroin he made Exile on Main St and learned to ski, or whatever.  But he also made Goats Head Soup, It’s Only Rock n Roll, Black and Blue and Love You Live, none of which are exactly brilliant, though there are flashes enough to suggest that had he had it together the spark might have survived. And even after he kicked it, the great songs have been intermittent at best. (I’ll say this for the book, I listened to ‘How Can I Stop’ off the forgotten Bridges to Babylon with new ears, and, yes, it’s a great track.) In the 70s Mick Jagger held the band together and made Keith wealthy and kept the money flowing, while Keith spent his time making sure there’d be a hit of heroin waiting for him when the plane landed. Jagger was the grown-up and Keith perennially a child. But the magic of the Stones was gone ‘cos, really, the Stones were great when Keith was great, and in the 70s Keith was about drugs before he was about music. They say in sport ‘don’t flirt with your form’. When  you’re on a roll, don’t take your foot off the gas. By the time he got off heroin, the momentum was long gone. It’s flared up now and again since; his solo Talk is Cheap, made when he was pissed off at Jagger, is a great record if you like Keith’s riffology.

Is it a good read? Oh, yeah. If you’re a Stones fan or a Keith fan, yeah. But the Richards ego is enormous. He barely recognises the existence of contemporaries beyond the Beatles and Elvis, as if they had nothing to teach him. So if you’re a fan to 60s/70s music in the broader sense, there’s surprisingly little here for you.

Keith’s cool, Keith’s tough, Keith has played and made some great music, he’s had an amazing life. His story is worth reading. Just take it with a grain of salt (and a shot of tequila).

 

An album a what?

 

Irrationality: The Enemy Within by Stuart Sutherland. Too true.

Penguin, 1994, 357 pages.

Well. This book is replete with summaries of studies that on the whole show that we are creatures of habit, instinct and fear more than thought and reason. We suffer from the illusion of control. We make emotional decisions and then convince ourselves they were carefully reasoned. We avoid data that might prove us wrong, even when being proved wrong is the best thing that could happen to us.

The cover of <i>Irrationality</i> by Stuart Sutherland.

The cover of Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland.

I can’t say I was shocked. There’s a time and a place for aiming for the utmost in rationality, of course, and times when that’s not sensible, and it is useful to know the difference. If you’re being chased by a bear a quick but sub-optimal decision may be better than making the right one too late. And it’s useful to know when it doesn’t really matter and you can just please your inner reptile, and when you really do need to sit down and analyse things properly.

And in a sense that is the key point. He basically says that only by understanding statistics and by essentially falling back on some means of scoring the alternatives and then picking the one with the best score can we really make rational decisions. Otherwise we rely on impressions, feelings and hunches, none of which are actually reliable. In the end, only by breaking down the problem and applying some kind of rigorous-as-possible analysis, generally relying on mathematics, can a really rational decision be made. And what fraction of decisions are made like than? In my life, relatively few.

Each chapter tackles various forms of irrationality, and each ends with a ‘moral’ which is really a bullet-point summary, the last one of which is usually humorous/facetious. (‘Eat what you fancy.’)

There is some repetition, but the points being made deserve hammering home. There are some lovely little ‘try this yourself’ puzzles, where even though I knew there was a trick and I desperately did not want to answer like an irrational creature, I still got it wrong. The simple two card trick, for example, which I won’t describe in detail here since it would be too much like giving away the twist in the tail.

In summary, if you think you are good at making decisions, you might find this book useful. If you already believe that we’re basically animals in clothes, this will not disabuse you. It’s funny, opinionated, amusing and entertaining, but a little, I repeat, repetitive. Some of the case studies of how really really really important ‘decisions’ were made are a little worrisome, especially because (of course) human nature has not really changed in the meantime. I sometimes look around at a skyscraper, or read about a decision to go to war or spend billions of dollars on a useless aeroplane, and this book comes to mind. Will the building fall down? Is the war really worthwhile? Will the aeroplane get off the ground, and if it does will it stay up?

In some ways the book makes our achievements all the greater. Okay, the planet is in trouble. Okay, we don’t always elect great leaders or do the right thing by our neighbours, family, friends. Yet so much has been done. We’re not always rational, no, and neither should we be. Would more people be happier if the balance shifted towards more rationality? Probably. Yet on the whole we go forward, stumbling sometimes, by accident sometimes, yet we do live longer, we have sent people (okay, men) to the moon, vastly fewer children and mothers die in childbirth. It’s not all bad, this world.

Anyway, it’s a good book.

 

Book book book.

An album a quarter #15: Bill Wyman by Bill Wyman. Hmm.

This album makes it pretty clear that Bill was not churning out a stream of brilliant songs that Jagger and Richards were suppressing to protect their own fragile egos.  Having said that, the Stones album nearest in time to this — Undercover — is hardly a masterpiece. None of the songs here would fit well with the tone of that Stones album, but they might improve it for colour and entertainment value.

Bill has pretty much nothing to say, and says it using repetitive, squelchy synthesisers and flat, low-key vocals that at least don’t try to be actual singing. There are some decent tunes and the odd amusing phrase.

Cassette tape inlay for <i>Bill Wyman</i> by William Perks.

Cassette tape inlay for Bill Wyman by William Perks.

In ‘Rio De Janeiro’ we get ‘it’s the gateway to South America’, as if he’s lifted the words straight out of a holiday brochure (which he did — the song says so). ‘Nuclear Reactions’ is a bizarre yet somewhat entertaining litany of cosmology terminology, like he’s done cut-ups but from a physics textbook (‘…quasar, pulsar … neutron star… X-ray source’) (at least he says ‘nuclear’ correctly — ‘new-clear’ not ‘new-cu-lar’. I mean, how do you get that from ‘nuclear’?) while in ‘Come Back Suzanne’ he is either being appallingly sexist — entirely possible — or he’s lost his favourite cleaning lady, as he ‘sings’

‘Cause the kitchen needs cleaning and the dishes in the sink
The clothes need washing and the washer’s broken down…

and on it goes. Every review I have ever read of this album uses the word ‘bizarre’. And of course it all reaches its apotheosis with the chart hit (number 14 in the UK!) ‘(Si Si) Je Suis un Rock Star’. It is a story about picking up a Brazilian woman and trying to get to his villa in the south of France but BEA is on strike and maybe they could take a hovercraft. At one point he notes, ‘They’ll think I’m your dad / And you’re my daughter’. It’s worth a look on You-tube, if nothing else, and if the idea of an album of this plus nine other songs like it but not quite as good is attractive, then this is the album for you.

 

But.

Survival in the Hold: The Raider “Wolf” by Roy Alexander.

The Raider Wolf by Roy Alexander

Angus & Robertson 1968, 177 pages, plus a map.

How many stories of bravery, survival and resourcefulness will never get told? How many have already been forgotten? This is one that is recorded, but it must stand for so many more.

Cover of <i>The Raider "Wolf"</i> by Roy Alexander.

Cover of The Raider “Wolf” by Roy Alexander.

 

The commerce raider Wolf left Germany on 30th November 1916. She returned 24th Feb, 1918, having sailed a distance equal to three times around the world and and sunk over 100 thousand tonnes of enemy shipping. It was a remarkable feat of seamanship, endurance, cunning and improvisation. This book tells that story, but, more remarkably, it does so from the point of view of one of the sailors interned aboard the Wolf. For the Wolf relied above all things on secrecy. So — what to do about the sailors from the defeated ships? If allowed free, Wolf’s existence and identification would be revealed. Kill them? Not Captain Nerger, a man of stern but human principles. So take them prisoner, keep them in the hold once allocated to mines … and take them, after a year at sea, to prison in Germany.

And for what, in the end? Always with war stories that is the question I cannot avoid. All the great and terrible qualities shown by both sides, and all for killing and destruction. It is a pity the myth of Glory is not yet disposed of.

Scurvy, death, madness. All these befell the prisoners. Yet though they were held under discipline, they were treated as men, not animals. But there is never an infinite supply of food…

The scenes below deck made me think of a Samuel Beckett novel, How It Is, with its endless crawling across an empty space, presumably simply because the alternative is stasis. At times I imagined a Lord of the Flies situation, or a kind of dissection of human behaviour under pressure like in If This is a Man. We have prisoners, bent on doing any little thing they can for the war effort, sneaking messages in bottles overboard, we have the captured ‘neutrals’ being given the chance to work for the German captain and being reviled by the prisoners — the opportunities for incident, for personal politics, and for bravery would make this a great setting for a novel. It has the dramatic unity of a curtailed space, limited resources, hierarchy, diverse sailors from multiple backgrounds being lumped together, people under pressure who simply cannot get out of each others’ way.

The map of the <i>Wolf</i>'s voyage. The only German ship to sail into Australian waters in World War I.

The map of the Wolf‘s voyage. The only German ship to sail into Australian waters in World War I.

Anyone who likes war fiction or fact, or who likes the kind of stories that cut to the heart of what humans can do when pushed — both for good and ill — could get something out of this book. Great literature it is not (the prose is workmanlike and serviceable) but the story is remarkable, some of the characters are astonishing, and the setting is evoked effectively and with authority. If you see it, consider picking it up.

 

Under the sea.

Meh. The World Swappers by John Brunner.

The World Swappers by John Brunner

Ace, some time in the 60s. 153 pages.

To me Brunner is a major figure of 60s and 70s SF. His ‘big 4‘ novels of the late 60s/early 70s, (Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, The Shockwave Rider and Jagged Orbit) form a block of work few writers can match; even so, they are perhaps more admired and respected than loved.

Cover of <i>The World Swappers</i> by John Brunner.

Cover of The World Swappers by John Brunner.

The World Swappers is a much earlier work — 1959 according to the imprint page, when Brunner was around 24 years old and had already been publishing for seven years, and was trying to make it as a full-time writer,

It draws on numerous conventions of space opera — matter transmission, faster than light travel, aliens, supermen (well, sort of). Brunner played with the matter transmitter off and on throughout his career. Another one that that comes to mind is The Infinitive of Go a much later tale with an asperity and astringency that I liked, though probably not to everyone‘s taste. This is a much earlier tale, and closer to the heart of space opera. Yet there remains a sense of calculation to it, as if Brunner the craftsman did not quite manage to hide the scaffolding from the reader. Someone who appears set to be a major character hardly appears again after the first chapter. Characters are wheeled in and out like gears being shunted back and forth in a gearbox, with nothing but the needs of the plot to impel them. Nowhere is there are character to root for.

The quote on the front cover says ‘very competent‘, but nothing more effusive. And it’s right. The story hangs together, every part functions, we get to an ending that manages to wrap up what went before. Did I care? No. Can I see that the author knows how to write? Yes.

bio

For the completist Brunnerfile, Brunnerphile only.

 

And one more thing.

Well-chosen elements: Elephant Elements by Pittau and Gervais.

Here’s a novelty; I’m talking about a kids’ book. Originally published in French as Les Contraires, Elephant Elements is that rare beast, a work aimed at kids which pleases adults but without being sly or condescending.

The front cover of <i>Elephant Elements</i>.

The front cover of Elephant Elements.

So many childrens’ books illustrate one word per page, to build vocabulary and teach those first few words. How could one word offer scope for wit, style and panache? This is where some creative people can find new ground where there seems to be none. This book does it by, as the French title suggests, pairing opposites. But it does it in the context of what they would mean for an elephant. And it does the unexpected. ‘Big/Small’ is commonplace, but how about ‘Solid/Liquid’? How does that work for an elephant? Below is a personal favourite, that captures the impish wit of the book.

Is it me on the left or the right? Yes, they are pretty much identical.

Is it me on the left or the right? Yes, they are pretty much identical.

There’s a kind of comedian’s timing to the entries. A few commonplace pairings, like ‘Big/Small’, then something a little unexpected. Then a few more plain ones and then… Until you are turning every page with a little thrill of anticipation. Will it be conventional (though still illustrated in those charmingly simple drawings)? Or will it be completely out of left field?

Well, I don’t want to spoil it. But I can heartily recommend this book to anyone who likes one word per page.

Other children’s activities.

Album of the week #14: The La’s by The La’s

What is there to say about this album? Contemporary with the Stone Roses making one epochal album and disappearing into legal limbo for six years, the La’s made one epochal album and disappeared completely. Stories abound about front man Lee Mavers and his obsessions with perfection. Did he really insist that he wanted a mixing console with ‘genuine 1960s dust’ on it? I don’t know. Did the band record some of the tracks repeatedly, trying to create the sound Mavers heard in his head? Probably. Is ‘There She Goes’ a drug song? Yes. Is ‘Timeless Melody’ one of the most brilliant tracks ever recorded anywhere by anyone? Yes.

Outside the cd insert.

Outside the cd insert.

As I understand it it was assembled by Steve Lillywhite from the detritus of numerous recording sessions, none of which were definitive enough for the band. The record company stepped in and insisted that an album be put together, and it was.

Inside the cd insert.

Inside the cd insert.

The result is an album that is essential for any fan of tuneful guitar pop. There are at least half a dozen great little tunes, and only a couple that drag at all — even if the band apparently complained that they had played badly, possibly on purpose because they did not really want to work with Lillywhite, just so that it would not get released….what a mess it ought to be! I recall a quote — I think it was Eric Temple Bell — who in his book Men of Mathematics said something like, ‘It takes two to make a masterpiece; one to paint it and another to shoot the painter when it is done’. And similarly, a work of art is, Da Vinci apparently said, never finished, only abandoned. Mavers needed help abandoning this album, and quite possibly never wanted it released.

But he’d struck a deal with a record company, and eventually it found its way into the public consciousness. And this is one occasional when I am glad that the creator did not get the final say, because even if this record is not exactly what he wanted it to be, it’s a bloody good listen.

 

Pop!

Brother Deluxe 700T

So I am trying out this old Brother Deluxe 700T manual typewriter. It is is nice condition, and seems to work perfectly well. The bell sounds dull and the ribbon is faded but does feed. The machine works well and it is my only machine with a ‘1’ key (instead of using ‘l’) and an exclamation mark (!). On the other hand, it feels sloppy and tinny compared with the Dora and especially the Hermes, which feels like it was machined from solid lump of steel where this feels more like it was riveted together from pressings. Good pressings, I suspect. It’s in great nick and set me back $20, which is pretty reasonable. I’ve put a two colour ribbon in it, since the other ones have black.

I can’t be bothered inserting pictures carefully, so here they all are:

Brother Deluxe 700T with it's top on. Beige beige beige.

Brother Deluxe 700T with it’s top on. Beige beige beige.

 

With the top off. Case in background. All plastic but all in good condition. Why is tab in red? Is it dangerous?

With the top off. Case in background. All plastic but all in good condition. Why is tab in red? Is it dangerous?

 

Some type from the Brother, man.

Text in two colours. The machine produces stuff that looks good on the page, though it feels flaky under the fingers while typing, as if bits are bending and flexing, but everything seems to end up in the right place when the typebar comes down.

 

My Brother from Nagoya.

My Brother from Nagoya.

Quick wipe with a bit of Jif on the casing, no cleaning of the machine itself required, and away it goes. The case is very plasticky, and looks quite flimsy, so I am quite impressed that it is so intact; I suspect it has not been used very much. No doubt being owned by me will see to it that the plastic lugs and springs and other vulnerable bits get broken. But in the meantime it gives me another unit to, well, put somewhere.

Nagoya B75635279, means was made Feb 1977. ‘JP-7’ model, under the hood.

Conclusion: The type is clear, with excellent contrast and readability. It has a paper stand, an eraser table, 1, 1.5, 2 line spacing, fixed but useful tab stops, a carriage lock (that I cannot get to work, though I can’t see anything wrong with it, so probably it is me), a ‘1’ and an exclamation mark (bang!) and an asterisk (*). I would say the selection of characters is probably superior to my other machines. It feels tinny but actually works very well and is lighter than my other machines (because uses a lot of fairly thin plastic). If results are important and ‘feel’ is not, it is an excellent machine. If ‘feel’ is as important as results, it does not match up with the Hermes. Brand new it would have been a lot cheaper than the Hermes (and it was cheaper second hand as well, though of course none of them cost much) and probably cheaper than the competing Olivetti, though, so I can see why there are so many Brother typewriters around.

This I think shows how clear and well-aligned the type is. The OCT routines I use work better with this than with the other machines I have.

This I think shows how clear and well-aligned the type is. The OCR routines I use work better with this than with the other machines I have (I will admit I thresholded the image in ImageJ because there was some show-through of type on the other side).

Nothing you needed to know, for sure.

So much missing: Miracles of Life by J. G. Ballard.

It’s hard to believe this is the whole story, or even much of it. Ballard generally played his cards close to his chest, and this is no different. It’s interesting. It’s written in his customary pithy, precise prose and the pages zoom by.

The cover of <i>Miracles of Life<.i> by J. G. Ballard.

The cover of Miracles of Life by J. G. Ballard.

A few quotes:

“My mother never showed the slightest interest in my career until Empire of the Sun, which she thought was about her.”

“But bridge, alcohol and adultery are the royal cement that societies together…”

“I had … endlessly experimented with my short stories, which were becoming steadily more unreadable.” (And this is before he had published anything!)

“..,poetry readings were a special form of social deprivation.”

“My children were at the centre of my life, circled at a distance by my writing.”

“The 1960s were an exciting decade that I watched on television.”

The book does explain his characteristic distance, his ability to view the world as a kind of experiment and then extrapolate in a clear-eyed way. It will not satisfy anyone looking for salaciousness, drug stories, or gossip. Though Ballard was the most influential writer to debut in the genre science fiction magazines, SF was only accidentally his jumping-off point — he read some copies of Galaxy and F&SF and realised that maybe venues like that would take his work. Yet only two SF figures are mentioned in the whole book — editors of New Worlds, John Carnell (see also Science Fantasy) (without whom none of us may have heard of Ballard) and Moorcock.

There’s also, oddly, not that much about Ballard, even though it is all about Ballard. It gives a list of influences, and a fairly schematic view of his life. The Shanghai stuff is fascinating and detailed, and must-read for anyone in love with Empire of the Sun or Ballard’s drained swimming pools and abandoned cities, but after that it is… it’s not dishonest. He seems to be saying what he thinks, but only a selection of what he thinks. At the end, I know more about Ballard but I don’t feel like I know Ballard any better.

Written after his diagnosis with advanced cancer, the book is sharp-eyed, economical and polite but unapologetic. Ballard’s voice was to me central to the development of a genuinely 20th C literature, a voice truly of the scientific age when so much literary fiction seems to wish the motorcar had not been invented, let alone the computer. That his biggest-selling book was a fictionalised autobiography says much about us. It is his most comfortable, most conventional work. One can only wonder what readers who liked that and so bought or borrowed High Rise or Crash might have thought.

I consider his best work, whether short (‘The Voices of Time’, ‘Terminal Beach’ and the like) or long (from his first significant novel, The Drowned World) as essential; canonical. This book is neither, it is interesting, an oddly low-key word.

Fascinating, but the tip of the iceberg.

 

Auto-bio-ography.