Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Juan Gris by Juan Antonio Gaya Nuño

A lovely showcase of the cubist master’s work
The Spanish painter Juan Gris did not invent the pictorial style of cubism, but he perfected it to its zenith. While Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque moved on to other modes of expression, Gris devoted his whole career to the visual language of cubism, creating some of the most ingenious, intricate, and aesthetically stimulating works in the cubist idiom.

The book simply entitled Juan Gris by Spanish art historian Juan Antonio Gaya Nuño was published in 1986 by a Spanish publisher, Ediciones Polígrafa, but they also published an English-language edition. The book opens with 25 pages of nothing but text, set so densely that it is painful to the eyes. Beyond that, however, the remaining hundred pages are filled with reproductions of Gris’s work. The text by Gaya Nuño presents an informative biography of the artist. It is unlikely that Gaya Nuño ever met Gris, who died young, but the historian did interview some of the artist’s contemporaries and friends in his research for this essay. Written from a Spanish perspective, the text contemplates and emphasizes Gris’s Spanishness and to what extent he expressed the national spirit of his homeland in his works. Gaya Nuño’s assessment of Gris’s relationship to Picasso is somewhat surprising. According to this account, Gris looked up to Picasso as a mentor and idol, but Picasso looked down on Gris and resented any critical acclaim the younger artist received.

While the text is educational, the main attraction here is the images. The book reproduces 166 of Gris’s artworks. About three-quarters of them are printed in color, and many occupy a full page. The photographs of the artworks would have been supplied by the individual museums that held them, so the quality of the photographs varies in terms of lighting and clarity of focus, but on the whole the images are reproduced beautifully. They are presented in chronological order, even starting with several examples of Gris’s day-job work as a graphic artist and illustrator. Some of his theatrical designs for stage sets and costumes appear towards the end of the book. Over the course of this retrospective, one can see Gris’s style develop from an analytical cubism based on the ideas of Picasso and Braque to a more idiosyncratic synthetic cubism later in his career. From the very beginning, however, Gris’s work exhibits a lyricism, experimentation, and playfulness that distinguishes him from his cubist contemporaries.

I know of two other fine illustrated books that have been published on Gris. Christopher Green’s book entitled Juan Gris was published in 1992 by Yale University Press. James Thrall Soby’s 1958 book, also entitled Juan Gris, was published by the Museum of Modern Art. You can find a digitized version of the latter book on the MOMA website. The Green book is much stronger on text, with lots of biographical content and analysis and criticism of Gris’s work. If you want a thorough scholarly overview of Gris’s career, Green’s is probably your book. Soby’s book is similar in size and number of photographs to Gaya Nuño’s, but, being printed in 1958, more of the pictures are in black and white. If you’re a fan of Gris’s work, you really can’t go wrong with any one of these three. Gaya Nuño’s book, however, may be the best illustrated of the three.

Violin and Guitar, 1913, oil on canvas, 100 x 65.5 cm

The Checkerboard, 1915, oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm

The Violin, 1916, oil on wood, 116.5 x 73 cm

Guitar, Bottle, and Glass, 1917, oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm

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Monday, February 19, 2024

The Absolute at Large by Karel Capek

One-joke satire of religious fanaticism
By the time Czech author Karel Capek published his first novel, The Absolute at Large, he had already established himself as a playwright. His most famous work nowadays, the science fiction drama R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), was first staged in 1920. Like that play, The Absolute at Large, published in 1922, is also a work of science fiction that takes place in the future. Capek is an exceptional writer who deserves to be better-known among English-language readers. His writing bears some resemblance to that of his countryman Franz Kafka in its dystopian visions, pessimistic tone, and deadpan sense of humor. The Absolute at Large, unfortunately, is not one of Capek’s better novels.

The story begins in 1943. G. H. Bondy is an industrialist who owns a factory in Prague. While perusing the newspaper, he comes across an ad placed by an inventor wishing to sell his latest invention. Bondy recognizes the name of the inventor as a former classmate of his and decides to call upon his old friend. The inventor, R. Marek, shows Bondy a dynamo he has created that runs on atomic power. He calls the device the Karburator. Unlike the inefficient burning of coal or wood, the Karburator can utilize the full atomic energy of its fuel, completely obliterating the raw material for a far more efficient and clean energy production. With such a wonderful and potentially lucrative invention, Bondy wonders why Marek is so eager to sell his creation.

It turns out that the Karburator produces an unusual side effect: an overwhelming feeling of religious fervor. According to philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s pantheistic doctrine of monism, God is inherently present in all matter, thus permeating the entire universe. When Marek’s Karburator annihilates matter, the portion of God, or the Absolute, contained in that matter is then released, affecting the minds and souls of those in proximity to the machine. While Marek finds this side effect troubling, Bondy has no such scruples. He purchases the Karburator and begins mass production. Soon the world is run by these atomic power plants, and outbreaks of piety and zealotry become more frequent. Various cults arise, and members of established religious denominations become increasingly fanatical, leading to killings and war. In addition, the Absolute not only affects human minds but also acts on its own behalf. By applying its creative powers to manufacturing, it destabilizes economies by glutting the market with overproduced goods.

The premise of The Absolute at Large is commendably ingenious. What follows, however, becomes tedious. Capek presents scene after scene of religious fanaticism, which to the reader is like hearing the same joke over and over again. I don’t have a problem with Capek’s religious irreverence, as we seem to share the same freethought views. He is not satirizing Spinoza so much but rather making a mockery of organized religion and each believers’ sense of denominational superiority. The conflicts between sects escalate into a dystopian, apocalyptic future, but one told with satirical silliness. Capek keeps introducing new characters every couple chapters, thus making it hard to become emotionally invested in any protagonist. Towards the end of the novel, Capek makes some valid points about religious tolerance, but by that time I was rather bored. 

For his time period, Capek was a unique voice in science fiction, and his works are still surprisingly thought-provoking and impressively innovative a century later. In general, however, I think I prefer his more serious works (not all of them sci-fi), like his “Noetic Trilogy” comprised of the novels Hordubal, Meteor, and An Ordinary Life.
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Friday, February 16, 2024

The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century by Peter Watson

An invigorating whirlwind tour through the arts, science, and humanities
Peter Watson’s 2000 book The Modern Mind is essentially a history textbook, but instead of focusing on political events, wars, or world leaders, Watson concentrates instead on developments in the arts, sciences, and humanities. The result is a very ambitious, panoramically erudite, and thoroughly engaging intellectual history of the twentieth century. Watson is a Brit, as evident from some of his spellings and turns of phrase. This is not merely a history of English-language culture, however. Watson has written a true world history, although by his own admission much of that history takes place in Europe and America. Watson follows the epicenter of ideas as it changes throughout the century, from Vienna to Berlin, Paris to London, then on to New York and the universities of the United States.

Not all of the intellectual movements Watson discusses are positive, progressive, or even morally acceptable. Social Darwinism, racism, anti-Semitism, Nazism, fascism, and Stalinism are discussed, not because they were good or intelligent, but because they happened, and they affected human lives. Over the course of the hundred years covered here, the modern mind was often mistaken, sometimes horribly so. Watson’s flowing narrative shows how ideas sprout from, counteract, and refute previous ideas as ideological movements come and go. For example, Watson acknowledges Sigmund Freud as one of the most influential minds of the twentieth century—an inspiration to many artistic movements, scientific theories, and the entire field of psychology—but he also points out that by the end of that century most of what Freud had to say was generally considered wrong.

Watson does a superb job of explaining some of the most complicated scientific and philosophical concepts in a manner accessible to any reasonably educated reader, without dumbing down the content. He summarizes countless published books by the greatest thinkers of the century and compares and contrasts them articulately. In terms of disciplines, Watson leaves no stone unturned. No matter how well-read you think you are, Watson covers a diverse enough array of fields of knowledge that you’re bound to learn something outside your comfort zone, and his writing is interesting enough to make you care about topics that didn’t interest you before. You never know where his encyclopedic mind will lead you next, and it is a pleasure to follow his lead through philosophy, physics, mathematics, psychology, economics, archaeology, art, music, literature, and many more areas of interest. I’m sure some could quibble about what’s included or what’s left out, or Watson’s particular take on some thinkers, but overall this is really an impressive work of staggering scope. If nothing else, I came away from The Modern Mind with a reading list of at least a hundred books for further consideration, in all fields of study.

While Watson’s text deserves praise, the publishers of this book (the Kindle edition, to be specific) should be ashamed of themselves. In 15 years of reading ebooks, I’ve never seen a worse collection of typographical errors. There are multiple problems with letter substitutions. In particular, double l’s came out as d’s and vice versa, so objects “cast a shallow,” “all” becomes “ad,” scientists don’t work at “Bell Labs” but at “Bed Labs,” not just in one instance but constantly throughout the text. The word “titles” always shows up as “tides.” Prehistoric man used “dint tools “ instead of flint. I work in book publishing, and I don’t even understand how such a screw-up is technologically possible. The bigger question is, how did HarperCollins release this ebook to the public without even noticing this pervasive problem? Maybe by the time you read this review they will have corrected the errors and uploaded a new file.
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Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Whipping Star by Frank Herbert

Weird-for-weird’s-sake space cop adventure
American science fiction author Frank Herbert is famous for his Dune series of novels, and some may be familiar with his trilogy The Pandora Sequence. His 1970 novel Whipping Star, however, is part of Herbert’s lesser-known ConSentiency series. This series takes place in a future where mankind has not only colonized other planets in the galaxy, but has also, unlike Dune, made contact with several sentient alien species. Somewhat like Star Trek, an interspecies government has been established to govern the galactic community. The ConSentiency series began with two short stories that are included in Herbert’s collection entitled Eye. Whipping Star is the first novel in this series. It is followed by 1977’s The Dosadi Experiment. These four works in the series were all previously published in science fiction magazines before appearing in book form.

What ties the ConSentiency series together is the character of Jorj X. McKie, agent of the Bureau of Sabotage (or BuSab for short). BuSab is a government agency created by the interplanetary government to sabotage the government itself and impede its own progress as a form of bureaucratic self-regulation. I found the idea of BuSab pretty ridiculous when I read the short stories in Eye; it is even more so here. Whipping Star comes across as so weird-for-weird’s-sake that you’re never quite sure when Herbert is trying to be silly.

A species called the Calebans have aided mankind through their gift of jumpdoors, teleportation portals between worlds. When a Caleban beachball (their form of spacecraft/dwelling) lands on the planet of Cordiality, McKie is sent to investigate. He finds that this particular Caleban is being literally and periodically whipped by an evil woman with an S&M fetish. (One can imagine Herbert delighting in his own naughtiness as he worked in that plot device.) This is more than just a consensual good time, however. This Caleban, in fact, is being slowly flogged to death. Even more shocking, McKie discovers that when this Caleban dies, almost all sentient life in the galaxy dies with her (why is too complicated to explain here). McKie must put a stop to the flagellations in order to save intelligent life as we know it. What makes his task difficult, however, is that these are long-distance floggings, employing jumpdoors (portal opens, arm swings whip, portal closes), so McKie has no idea where the dominatrix resides. He must track her down and stop her, or the end of humanity (and several other intelligent species) is imminent.

The most interesting aspect of this novel is McKie’s conversations with the Caleban, in which Herbert explores the language barrier between two species. Both parties speak the same language, but their syntax and vocabulary are different enough to impede understanding, which makes a critical situation even more difficult to overcome. These linguistic exercises seem to be the reason Herbert wrote the story, because beyond that, Whipping Star is just a jumble of goofy anything-goes space gibberish that is so divorced from any recognizable logic that it’s hard for the reader to care about any of it.
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Monday, February 12, 2024

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers

Too much whimsy in Wimsey’s second outing
Lord Peter Wimsey may not be as famous as Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, but as far as classic sleuths of British detective fiction go, Wimsey’s certainly in the top ten. The creation of author Dorothy L. Sayers, Wimsey is a British nobleman who solves crimes as a hobby. Clouds of Witness, published in 1926, is Sayers’s second Lord Peter Wimsey novel. I enjoyed Wimsey’s debut novel, Whose Body?, but found this second outing less than satisfying.

A man has been shot and killed at Riddlesdale, a country estate of the Wimsey family. Lord Peter was not present at the time, but his elder brother Gerald, the Duke of Denver, and his sister, Lady Mary Wimsey, were hosting a group of friends for a week of hunting. The victim is Denis Cathcart, Lady Mary’s fiancé. All evidence points to Gerald, who is arrested. Because the accused is a peer of the realm, the legal proceedings become a media event. Lord Peter, having already established a reputation for solving mysteries, comes to solve the case and exonerate his brother. Peter’s secretive siblings make his task more difficult, however, by concealing information, thereby increasing suspicions of their guilt.

Once Lord Peter arrives on the case, he takes the testimony of all the parties present at the Riddlesdale chateau. Among the various perspectives, there is much disagreement as to the timetable of events, which Lord Peter must set straight. He also conducts a thorough examination of footprints on the grounds, the description of which is quite confusing for the reader, who doesn’t have the benefit of eyes on the scene. One must understand every detail perfectly, because this is one of those mysteries where if you blink, you’ll miss a critical clue. Lord Peter is aided in his investigations by his valet Bunter and a police detective named Parker. Neither really rises to the level of a Doctor Watson sidekick, but Parker proves a more active contributor to Wimsey’s investigations than Inspector Lestrade in Holmes’s cases.

There is a good mystery story here, but it is unfortunately bogged down in way too many distractions. The story feels drawn out and padded to fit the page count of a novel. Sayers employs quite a bit of humor in her storytelling, but it’s the kind of humor you’d really have to be a Briton of the 1920s to appreciate. Wimsey and friends speak with many expressions of outdated slang, and Sayers gives the servant class heavy accents that are barely decipherable. This mystery novel really could have used less humor and more suspense. It’s as if Sayers, relying on laughs, neglects to include any thrills. After the morass of minute details the reader is forced to digest, when all is said and done, the ending feels too easy. With all the assistance given by Bunter, Parker, and other policemen and lawyers, it doesn’t even appear that Lord Peter has done the lion’s share of the detective work.

I’m sure Lord Peter Wimsey has some exciting and perplexing mysteries somewhere amongst his case files, but Clouds of Witness isn’t one of them. There’s not enough pure detection here, as Sayers gets sidetracked in social satire and the Wimsey family dynamic. Before Sayers introduced us to Lord Peter’s family, she should have really focused more on impressing us with his detective work.
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Monday, February 5, 2024

Early Stories by Mikhail Sholokhov

Realist vignettes of Cossack life
Russian author Mikhail Sholokhov, winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Literature, is known for his epic novels, most notably the monumental And Quiet Flows the Don and its sequel The Don Flows Home to the Sea. Not all of Sholokhov’s fiction comes in big packages, however, as evidenced by the half dozen works of short fiction in Early Stories. This collection was published in English translation in 1966. The book has no introduction or bibliographic information, so there’s no telling when exactly these early stories were first published.

Much like And Quiet Flows the Don, the stories collected here demonstrate Sholokhov to be a master of realism. More specifically, Sholokhov is a socialist realist who achieved great acclaim and won numerous awards in the Soviet Union. Sholokhov’s literature toes the party line, so to speak, and he enjoyed the approval of Joseph Stalin. Even so, his writing is not mere Soviet propaganda but truly insightful and powerful literature of the human condition that just happens to be set amid Soviet society and ideology.

Sholokhov was born in the territory of the Don Cossacks (near the Don River), and much of his literature is concerned with Cossack life. Most of the entries in Early Stories take place around the 1920s, when the majority of Cossacks were hostile toward communism. Sholokhov’s depiction of this time and place reveals the contrasts between the traditional pastoral Cossack lifestyle and the encroaching modern communist regime. As Sholokhov depicts it, the armed conflict between these two forces is played out in the bleak and dusty environment of the steppes, where life is hard to begin with even without the added horrors of warfare. Sholokhov’s writing here reminds me of the stories of Mexican author Juan Rulfo in his book The Burning Plain, which take place during the Mexican Revolution. Both authors vividly recreate the experiences of their homelands in stark and unsparing tones and illustrate the riveting drama of unsung human lives amid brutality, poverty, and oppression. Each relates such dark themes, however, not without touches of beauty, humor, and a mystical surrealism. Their works transcend location and ideology to elucidate universal truths of the human experience.

In “The Bastard,” an 8-year-old boy is reunited with his father, who has been gone for years fighting in the communist army. Their neighbors in their Cossack village, however, are not favorably disposed towards the Reds. In “The Azure Steppe,” an old serf tells his grandson stories of life before the Revolution, detailing the violent treatment of peasants by the landlord, and how some of those peasants fought back. In “The Herdsman,” a young man with communist leanings dreams of an urban education, but he’s stuck in his backwards Cossack village. “The Birth Mark” depicts the lawlessness and banditry rampant during wartime. “Alien Blood” is a poignant tale of a Cossack couple who lose their son to war, while “The Foal” relates the life of a horse unlucky enough to be born to an army unit during a military campaign.

Despite his Nobel Prize, I imagine Sholokhov’s association with Stalin hasn’t done his long-term literary reputation any favors. Nevertheless, communist or not, Soviet or not, Sholokhov is a terrific author of powerful and fascinating fiction. And Quiet Flows the Don is a masterpiece. By comparison, these short stories are more like the sketches of a master painter. They aren’t as impressive as the artist’s masterworks, but they display the same prodigious talent. Anything by Sholokhov is worth reading; unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot available in English. If you come across a copy of the now out-of-print Early Stories in a used book store, snatch it up.

Stories in this collection

The Birth-Mark
The Herdsman
The Bastard
The Azure Steppe
The Foal
Alien Blood

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Friday, February 2, 2024

Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form by Bill Holm

An informative style guide to a sophisticated Indigenous art form
The Native Americans (or First Nations, as Canadians would say) of the Northwest Pacific Coast of North America developed a beautiful artistic style that is still actively practiced by artists of the region, as evidenced in everything from totem poles to jewelry to modern lithographic prints. What makes this art so attractive and intriguing is the unique formal language of sinuous, undulating lines, and the composite, interconnected imagery of animal and human forms that’s instantly recognizable as common to this particular region. University of Washington art historian Bill Holm set out to establish a code of formal guidelines endemic to the Indigenous art of the Northwest Coast. He accomplished this by analyzing roughly 400 works in different media and quantitatively calculating statistics of form, color, and design to draw conclusions about the universal characteristics of this aesthetic language. Holm clarifies that he is specifically examining the art of five nations that he considers produce the purest examples of this art form: the Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Bella Bella, and Bella Coola peoples. Holm’s book Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form was first published in 1965 by the University of Washington Press.

I read their 50th Anniversary Edition, published in 2015. This is really a beautiful book. Even though it’s just a slim paperback, it has the luscious quality of a coffee-table art tome. Graphic designer Thomas Eykemans deserves commendation for his composition and layout of this book. (I also design books for a university press, and this book makes me envious.) The photographs are all high quality, the illustrations are very well executed, and the book is beautifully printed.

The text by Holm, on the other hand, isn’t quite as pleasurable. His writing often reads with the dryness and abstrusity of a geometry textbook but without the mathematical precision. Holm may have been the first to write down the aesthetic rules for this art form, but I’m not sure how useful the guidelines he’s established will really be for artists attempting to learn this visual language. A lot of Holm’s statements are just obvious generalities that anyone could make by observing several pieces of Northwest Coast Indian art—the curvilinear forms and the use of ovoids, for example. Holm also phrases a lot of his aesthetic assessments in the form of “Some artists do this; some artists do that,” which doesn’t really provide any useful definitiveness either. Holm’s greatest contribution is his revelation that two-dimensional Northwest Coast art is made up of a primary formline, secondary forms, and tertiary forms, all of which must be balanced in their own right before working together as a cohesive whole. These levels of form also correspond to the three main colors employed: black, red, and blue-green. The book includes some very good diagrams that illustrate this concept well. Holm never discusses the meaning of the imagery in these artworks, such as the animal or human forms depicted. For artists looking to practice or learn from this art form, I think a better instructional manual would be Hilary Stewart’s Looking at Northwest Coast Indian Art.

The strength of Holm’s book is its instructive illustrations and diagrams. The design and full-color printing also make it a more visually attractive volume than Stewart’s book. Though I’ve expressed reservations about Holm’s writing, if you’re really interested in Northwest Coast Indian art, this is a book you should own. It’s not a huge coffee table book, so it’s not going to set you back a lot of money, and with the paperback price you’re certainly getting your money’s worth.  
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